WASHINGTON — Increasingly frustrated by his dealings with President Hamid Karzai, President Barack Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and to a “zero option” that would leave no U.S. troops there after next year, according to U.S. and European officials.
Obama is committed to ending America’s military involvement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and Obama administration officials have been negotiating with Afghan officials about leaving a small “residual force.” But his relationship with Karzai has been slowly unraveling, and reached a new low after a U.S. effort last month to begin peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar.
Karzai promptly repudiated the talks and ended negotiations with the United States over the long-term security deal that is needed to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014.
A videoconference between Obama and Karzai designed to defuse the tensions ended badly, according to both U.S. and Afghan officials with knowledge of the conversation.
The option of leaving no troops in Afghanistan after 2014 was gaining momentum before a June 27 videoconference, according to the officials. But since then, the idea of a complete military exit has gone from being considered the worst-case scenario — and a useful negotiating tool with Karzai — to an alternative under serious consideration in Washington and Kabul.
The officials cautioned that no decisions had been made on the pace of the pullout and exactly how many U.S. troops to leave behind in Afghanistan. The goal remains negotiating a long-term security deal, they said.
“There’s always been a zero option, but it was not seen as the main option,” said a senior Western official in Kabul. “It is now becoming one of them, and if you listen to some people in Washington, it is maybe now being seen as a realistic path.”
The official, however, said he hoped some in the Karzai government were beginning to understand that the zero option was now a distinct possibility, and that “they’re learning now, not later, when it’s going to be too late.”