Afghan President Hamid Karzai's visit this week to Washington marks one of the final big decision points in America's 11-year Afghanistan war. This week's meetings are likely to determine the final U.S. footprint in Afghanistan after 2014, when all international combat operations are slated to end. And that residual number of U.S. forces could well be zero.
Recent reports suggest that the White House is looking at troop options ranging from 3,000 to as many as 15,000 stay-behind troops. Many think that the final figure will be well under 10,000. These numbers are much diminished from proposals seriously considered even 12 to 24 months ago of a long-term presence in the range of 20,000 to 35,000 troops. The realities of shrinking budgets and crumpled public support for the war have dramatically trimmed those expectations. In recent weeks, vigorous debate has been under way inside the administration in advance of Karzai's visit to sort out a minimalist approach that will protect long-term U.S. interests in the region, but do so with the absolute leanest outlay of dollars and troops.
Karzai comes to this week's discussions convinced that the United States desperately needs long-term military bases in Afghanistan. He sees an America without other viable options to maintain its regional influence, cajole Pakistan, threaten Iran, or launch raids against nearby terrorists. Because of this, Karzai thinks that he holds all the cards in the upcoming negotiations. He is absolutely convinced that the United States has no workable strategic choice but to station substantial U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
But Karzai has it wrong. There is strong sentiment in the United States to look at all the options. Here are five reasons why:
Iraq. The outcome of America's war in Iraq sets a strong precedent for a similar "zero" U.S. military posture in Central Asia. Iraq has not become an Iranian puppet state nor descended into chaos since the United States withdrew all its military forces at the end of 2011. The United States maintains a robust diplomatic presence there -- and presumably conducts intelligence activities -- to protect its interests. Iraqi political decisions are often at odds with U.S. preferences; few think that a U.S. troop presence would change that reality. Iraq's failure to grant remaining U.S. soldiers legal immunity from Iraqi law doomed any possibility of a residual force there; the same could happen in Afghanistan, and withdrawal could be seen as an equally viable outcome by many Americans.
Budgetary pressure. With a debt crisis and crumbling infrastructure at home, enthusiasm on Capitol Hill for spending taxpayer dollars on foreign adventures is at an all-time low. The recent action to avert the fiscal cliff has delayed, but not fixed, the substantial imbalance between U.S. spending and revenue. A perpetual flow of billions of aid dollars to Afghanistan after 2014 -- for U.S. troops or for Afghans -- will be a much tougher sell two years from now than it is today. And it is very tough today.