Administration infighting on Afghan pullout

A fight over whether to pull out all U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2014 is raging between the White House, State Department and Defense Department officials, as the Afghan president mulls whether to let them stay. 

The so-called “zero option” – that is, a complete pullout of U.S. forces – is being advocated by some White House officials who believe the U.S. should be spending more money at home versus abroad, according to current and former defense officials.

Defense officials, on the other hand, are calling for a presence of 9,000 to 12,000 U.S. troops in order to prevent Afghanistan from falling back under Taliban control.  

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“There are strong positions among some people in the White House that there should be a zero option, and they appear to be looking for a way to do that,” David Sedney, former Defense Assistant Secretary for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, said in an interview with The Hill.  

"Those who want a zero-option type result, mainly at the White House, are working to undercut those who want to finish the job, mainly at State and Defense," said Sedney, who left the administration in May and favors leaving an enduring troop presence.

Defense officials say they are worried that the zero option becomes likelier the longer President Karzai takes in signing a bilateral security agreement that would permit U.S. troops to continue their training and counterterrorism mission.

Karzai’s delay in signing the agreement has frustrated White House officials, and bolstered those pushing for the ‘zero option,’ a defense official said on background. 

Defense officials also say a prompt signing is crucial due to the hundreds of contingent decisions and arrangements that have to be made to allow for U.S. troops to remain there, such as which bases to leave open.

White House officials had first set an unofficial deadline for the agreement’s signing for fall. The expected deadline was then pushed back to the end of December.

Most recently, the White House said in early January that they expected a signing “within weeks, not months,” and said they had no choice but to begin planning for the zero-option. 

The debate is heating up as the president’s State of the Union address on January 28 approaches. 

Sedney and a current defense official said the White House had been pushing Karzai to sign the agreement so that the president could announce the decision of how many troops he plans to leave in Afghanistan during the speech. 

“That was the plan all along,” confirmed the defense official.

At last year’s State of the Union, the president announced he was halving the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, from 64,000 troops to 32,000 by February 2014. 

Sedney said the debate has been driving recent leaks by those in favor of the zero option. 

For example, he said, the Washington Post reported on Dec. 28 that the classified National Intelligence Estimate predicted that U.S. gains made in Afghanistan would be significantly eroded by 2017 regardless of whether the U.S. leaves troops there, which position, Sedney said, supported the zero option. 

On Jan. 9, the Post reported that a classified cable by the lead U.S. negotiator on the security agreement with Afghanistan warned the Obama administration that its efforts to persuade Karzai to sign the document on the U.S. timetable are likely to fail. 

Karzai has said he intends to wait until after the Afghan presidential elections on April 5, in order to let the incoming president sign the agreement. 

A spokesperson for Karzai said for Afghans, the timing was not as important as whether the U.S. would agree to Afghan demands.  

But there is no doubt Americans are losing patience in continuing to support an unpopular war.

This week in an omnibus spending bill, Congress approved only half of what the White House had originally requested to support Afghan troops and reconstruction efforts. 

After a White House national security meeting on Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Vice President Joe Biden is advocating for a minimal U.S. presence of 2,000 to 3,000 troops. 

Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann said he believed those wanting to leave more than a small presence would eventually win out, but that it was unlikely an agreement would be signed before April. 

Pressuring Karzai to sign an agreement before April will make it less likely he will do without making more demands, Neumann told the Hill. 

“Karzai has got it in his head that we want this,” he said. “We undermined our strategy, setting deadlines that were arbitrary.”