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The Zero Option: “…much bleaker prospects…”?

January 11, 2013

By Tim Foxley

Summary: Barack Obama mulls over his favourite subject – how many troops should there be in Afghanistan and what should they do?  Options sprawl from zero to 30,000, suggesting something in the low to middle range might emerge – training Afghans and combatting Al Qaeda might require many thousands of troops.  However, Obama has been burned specifically by the troop level debate in 2009 and the Afghan war generally from 2008 to the present.  A low number – or nothing at all – appears to be the flavour at present.  Obama’s discussions with the sometimes erratic Afghan President Karzai might tip the balance one way or the other…


OK, OK, we'll split the difference...

OK, OK, we’ll split the difference…

The Economist has a pessimistic piece out this week, reflecting on the apparent US “zero option” suggestion that they may pull out all their remaining troops after 2014.  It seems as if the US debate regarding the number of US troops to be left in Afghanistan – mission or missions as yet unclear – now spans a range of numbers from zero to 30,000.  I am currently looking through the Barack Obama decision-making process  for the 2009 “surge” decision that committed  thousands of addition US forces in an effort to force a result in Afghanistan.  There are quite a few potential parallels between the 2009 troop numbers debate and the 2013 one.  From my readings of 2009 (mainly from Bob Woodward’s book “Obama’s Wars”), I would make a few tentative suggestions:Woodward, Obamas wars

The US President’s decision-making process requires examination of a range of options provided by the military.  The civilian parts of the team do not always understand what the military want (or even what they are talking about).  The selection of the options and the manner in which they are presented are crucial.  They will be a highly complex, agenda-driven bargaining process, with many actors actively engaged: Dept of Defense, Pentagon, US commanders in Afg, State Dept, Presidential advisors, the Vice President, Treasury… All these actors and groups will be pushing and pulling in different directions.

It seems as if General Allen has been told to revise his initial troop level options downwards.

This suggests a few things:

  • a disconnect between commanders in Afghanistan and the leadership in Washington (not exactly a surprise, perhaps)
  •  an inability to decided what the overall mission will be (train the Afghans? Special Forces against AQ? Provided combat support for the Afghans?)
  • White House thinking has shifted – or they have already decided on what they want to do

Following on from that last point, although options are intended to aid the decision-making process, it is possible that a broad decision has already been taken – therefore it may be important that a “correct” set of options be designed in order to justify the decision that has already been taken.

Gen John Allen

Gen John Allen

Options at the extreme ends of any decision-making process are generally not designed for use but more to enable the problem to be framed and to prepare the way for a middle option to be used.  Extreme options might also serve a useful purpose – through leaking or open “read between the lines” discussion in the media – of sending particular signals – eg to President Karzai.  Looking at the 2009 decision(s), it seemed that, at the last minute (and even beyond), Barack Obama was still trying to get clear in his mind a fundamental question: “What are we actually trying to do in Afghanistan?”

At the last minute, even after numerous national security team meetings, the final “numbers” were still being fiddled with, to compromise issues, smooth people’s feelings and ensure that the decision was able to look good in a speech, in the media and to the US populace.  The formal public announcement will be as general and vague as possible to allow flexibility in interpretation.  I also got the sense that, because the issue had been framed more as a military issue (“we need x number of additional troops in order to “win”), too much of the debate focused around pure numbers of troops, rather than what the actual strategy should be.

New CIA chief, John Brennan

New CIA chief, John Brennan

Implementing the decision correctly and having a process in place to measure the results or impact may only addressed after the decision has been taken.  Given that the options range from zero to 30,000 and the manner in which options are often employed in decision-making, it is plausible to suggest that something in the middle might emerge – training Afghans and combatting Al Qaeda will certainly require many thousands of troops.  However, Obama has been badly burned by the troop level debate in 2009 and by the Afghan war from 2008 to the present.  He may conclude that offshore drones could form the main instrument for warding off the AQ threat in Afghanistan or that the Afghan Army can be propped up with money and minimal levels of advisors.  I just heard Joshua Foust on the BBC today discussing legality of drones and what the impact of the new “Pro-drones” CIA Director, John Brennan, might have on this.  A low number or troops – or nothing at all – appears to be the flavour of the moment.  In the end, Obama’s discussions with the sometimes erratic Afghan President Karzai might tip the balance  one way or the other.

Providing a long-term and credible security commitment to Afghanistan doesn’t necessarily mean regular soldier boots on the ground – many options are available beyond this.

“We’re not leaving Afghanistan prematurely…in fact, were not ever leaving at all”

Robert Gates, Secretary for Defense, 2010

or this:

“We are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period.”

VP Joe Biden, Oct 2012

Take your pick…


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