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The Best Bluffs of the U.S.-Afghan Relationship

As the Obama administration considers what the residual U.S. force in Afghanistan will look like after its planned drawdown in 2014, the general consensus has been that some troops — particularly special forces for counterterrorism missions — will be staying behind. But amid a new spate of disagreements between U.S. officials and Afghan President Hamid ...

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

As the Obama administration considers what the residual U.S. force in Afghanistan will look like after its planned drawdown in 2014, the general consensus has been that some troops — particularly special forces for counterterrorism missions — will be staying behind. But amid a new spate of disagreements between U.S. officials and Afghan President Hamid Karzai following his withdrawal from tentative peace talks with the Taliban last month, the New York Times reported this morning that the Obama administration is increasingly considering the "zero option" — a complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year.

Since a particularly contentious meeting with Karzai on June 27, the Times reports, "the idea of a complete military exit similar to the American military pullout from Iraq has gone from being considered the worst-case scenario — and a useful negotiating tool with Mr. Karzai — to an alternative under serious consideration in Washington and Kabul."

Or, then again, it could be a bluff. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that Washington has stared down its nominal ally in Kabul, or the other way around (despite Obama’s insistence that he doesn’t bluff). Just last year, Karzai told reporters that the United States was playing a "double game" and threatened to find a new weapons supplier, name-dropping India, China, or Russia.

And Karzai knows a thing or two about double games. He never followed through on his threat to buy arms from U.S. rivals, but that’s a modest bluff compared to some of his bolder, more outlandish claims:

  • In May 2011, after a NATO airstrike killed 14 civilians, Karzai issued "his last warning to the US troops and US officials" on NATO operations and civilian casualities, according to a statement from his office.
  • In March 2012, Karzai demanded that U.S. forces withdraw from villages to major bases, saying, "This has been going on for too long…. This is by all means the end of the rope here."
  • And then there was the time Karzai threatened to join the Taliban. In April 2012, an exasperated Karzai told a member of the Afghan Parliament, "If you and the international community pressure me more, I swear that I am going to join the Taliban."

Domestic politics enter into these statements as well. Karzai’s threats have frequently come in response to civilian casualties, as he tries to appeal to the Afghan population. But there’s also a strong element of negotiating brinksmanship. In some respects, Washington threatening a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces — like Karzai threatening to join the Taliban — is the diplomatic nuclear option. Now, expect the push for a compromise to commence.

J. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network. Twitter: @jdanastuster

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