“There are, of course, many different ways of accomplishing those objectives, some of which might involve US troops, some of which might not,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communication, told reporters in a conference call Tuesday.
Gen. John Allen, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, has submitted military options that include three plans for troop levels at 6,000, 10,000, and 20,000.
By putting a “zero option” on the table in advance of Karzai’s visit, however, the Obama administration is injecting a lower figure in the military’s “Goldilocks” approach. This, in turn, changes the terms of the debate, since any figure higher than zero seems like a compromise.
“I suspect there’s probably some gamesmanship involved,” says Jeffrey Dressler, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.
Equally important, leaking the zero-option scenario is meant to send a message to Karzai, Mr. Dressler adds.
“What the White House is trying to demonstrate is, ‘We could possibly completely withdraw, so when you come to D.C., just be aware that this is a two-sided conversation. This isn’t going to be you coming to D.C. to tell us what we’re going to do,’ ” Dressler says.
In the past, Karzai has been vocal in his demands that US troops not conduct night raids, for example. A key point in discussions will also involve whether US troops and contractors should have immunity from prosecution if any Afghan official may want to charge them with war crimes.
This latter point was the stumbling block when US forces were pulling out of Iraq. The administration ultimately decided against leaving US troops behind when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would not compromise on immunity.
Karzai, on the other hand, has a greater interest in keeping US troops in his country than the Iraqis had, Dressler argues. “He also understands that the Obama administration doesn’t have much desire to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014,” he says.