War weariness. By 2014, the United States will have been at war in Afghanistan for over 12 years. The connection between Afghanistan and the 9/11 attacks has frayed deeply since Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. forces in 2011. With over 2,000 Americans killed and another 17,000 wounded in over a decade of inconclusive fighting, most Americans are looking for an exit from a seemingly interminable war. Maintaining congressional and popular support for an unending deployment of thousands of U.S. troops after 12 years at war will be supremely difficult, even more so if casualties continue.
Stand-off capabilities. The United States has powerful remote intelligence, surveillance, and strike capabilities that could only be dreamed of in the 1990s. These capabilities increasingly can be employed from "stand-off" distances, with a few flying from as far as the United States. Some of these capabilities require regional basing, but Afghanistan is not the only country that can provide low-visibility basing options. Drones have changed the face of warfare, and used in concert with U.S. intelligence into remote areas, they are increasingly lethal to terrorists.
U.S. intelligence networks. Eleven years of extensive quiet intelligence efforts partnered with Afghans (and Pakistanis) have created a deep web of friendly contacts that will be maintained long after 2014. In some ways, the post-2014 environment in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area could evolve into a prolonged "intelligence war," with hundreds of U.S. operatives and billions of covert dollars invested in preventing further terrorist attacks on the United States. Given its vital importance, this undertaking will endure -- regardless of the size of the residual U.S. military presence.
U.S. President Barack Obama will have to weigh the substantial risks inherent in a "Zero Option" for Afghanistan. Absent the stabilizing influence of some numbers of U.S. troops, Afghanistan could slip back into chaos, experiencing a new version of the devastating civil war that rent the country in the 1990s. The ability to see and strike terrorist groups that aim to attack the United States or its allies from within the region would be degraded. Al Qaeda could surge into growing ungoverned spaces and perhaps re-establish a more prominent foothold. U.S. influence on a nuclear-armed Pakistan would undoubtedly lessen if U.S. troops were no longer stationed next door. And the potential for the United States to put pressure on Iran from U.S. forces posted near its eastern border would vanish. By any measure, it is a suboptimal posture for the United States in the region, but not necessarily an untenable one.
Obama must consider all these risks as he sits down with Karzai to hammer out this last chapter of the war. Karzai would be wise to avoid overplaying his hand. Even though the Zero Option is not the best choice to protect American long-term regional interests, it certainly remains on the table. Overreach on Karzai's part could easily sour prospects for any sort of enduring U.S. military presence.
For Americans, the Afghanistan war is entering its final phase. Obama knows that this war will end on his watch. His legacy as president will inevitably be shaped by its outcome. Whether U.S. troops ultimately stay or leave Afghanistan after 2014 may now come down to just one week of tough bargaining. Each nation has a great deal at stake.