Finally, and belatedly, the war in Afghanistan, America’s longest war, will come to an end roughly a year from now. President Obama has pledged as much and war-weary Americans will accept nothing less. The major issue recently discussed in Kabul is whether some U.S. troops will remain in 2015 to protect the Hamid Karzai government from the Taliban and to preserve whatever modest gains were made in a war whose goals veered years ago from the killing of Osama bin Laden and the destruction of al-Qaida to modest attempts at nation-building. It is debatable that this is a wise idea, but the corrupt and uncooperative government may make it a moot point.
A draft of a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) was reached in Kabul earlier this month by President Karzai and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Mr. Karzai, who ordinarily refuses to delegate authority, declined to sign off on the deal, saying that this was the job of the country’s ineffectual and conflicted parliament, the Loya Jirga, which will meet in about a month. The Obama administration thought it had an agreement with Mr. Karzai that any American troops accused of crimes in Afghanistan be prosecuted in the United States, but it is impossible to predict what the parliament will do in regards to this and other aspects of the BSA.
Mr. Karzai is inviting the "zero option." Both the Reuters News Agency and The New York Times have reported what military circles refer to as the "zero option," which means that the U.S. will leave no troops behind once American and NATO involvement in the war winds down in 2014. President Karzai, who has been consistently critical of U.S. military decisions made on his behalf and has even accused Washington of secretly collaborating with the Taliban, which has killed and crippled American soldiers in this decade-plus operation, continues to make the "zero option" look inviting.
The brutal religious zealots of the Taliban are, of course, a far worse option for the war-torn nation than the Karzai government, with all of its corruption and incompetence, or presumably whatever may replace this government in national elections tentatively scheduled for next April. In an interview in the magazine Deutsche Welle that was included in a recent press release from the National Security Network, Phurnzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, said that "Since the 2001 fall of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan has made important strides in promoting women’s rights, the protection of women and girls, and the participation of women in decision-making. It is imperative that women’s rights and empowerment are prioritized in the coming period of transition."
A return to Taliban rule would indeed be terrible for women and anyone in Afghanistan who supports a secular democracy. President Karzai has, however, had 12 years to make the Taliban irrelevant by establishing an honest, capable democratic system and failed utterly to do so. Iraq descended into violence and chaos when the U.S. departed and Afghanistan may do the same, but there is only so much America, with plenty of problems of its own, can do for other nations, especially nations whose rulers won’t put aside greed, corruption and power politics to help their own people. The "zero option" won’t be pretty but it may be inevitable.