So is the New York Times right that President Barack Obama is increasingly looking at the "zero option" for Afghanistan, opting not to leave any residual American force in the war-torn country after combat troops leave at the end of 2014?
On Tuesday, the White House offered a coy mmmmmmaybe. A top Republican lawmaker responded with a resounding no way.
The Times precipitated the latest curious discussion of how the president will end America's longest war with a report Monday that cited anonymous officials (not necessarily Americans) as saying that Obama -- spurred on by increasing exasperation with his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai -- was looking to speed up the withdrawal and increasingly looking at the “zero option.”
Key bit: “There’s always been a zero option, but it was not seen as the main option,” said a senior Western official in Kabul. “It is now becoming one of them, and if you listen to some people in Washington, it is maybe now being seen as a realistic path.”
The White House had said openly in January that Obama might adopt the "zero option." On a Jan. 8 conference call with reporters, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes described it as "an option that we would consider."
And it's always been on the table anyway, at least since the collapse of U.S. negotiations with Iraq’s government about basing Americans on that country’s soil left Obama no choice but to pull out completely. So American officials always knew it was a possibility in Afghanistan.
So why now? The Times reported that "[t]alks between the United States and Afghanistan over a long-term security deal have faltered in recent months over the Afghan government’s insistence that the United States guarantee Afghanistan’s security and, in essence, commit to declaring Pakistan the main obstacle in the fight against militancy in the region."
White House press secretary Jay Carney played down the report without really denying it. Sure, he told reporters at his daily briefing, "We have made clear that the options that are available include the zero option, the so-called zero option." But "this is not a decision that's imminent," he said several times.
Is the Obama-Karzai relationship on the rocks? "We’ve had disagreements in the past, and we’ll have them in the future, there’s no question," Carney said. "But the core agreement here is on a future in Afghanistan that is stable and democratic and secure."
Still, the spokesman's comments at times seemed calibrated to fuel the speculation.
"The residual force -- and whether there is one -- will depend on our negotiations with the Afghans and on our assessment of the best way to achieve our policy objectives," he said. " Those objectives may be met by a residual force of U.S. troops in Afghanistan or they may be met through other means. I mean, there are other ways to train and equip security forces and there are other ways, obviously, to continue our efforts against remnants of al Qaeda."
Training Afghan forces and carrying out counter-terrorism operations have always been the two chief justifications for any residual force.
Later in the day, though, a senior Republican stepped into the fray as a kind of unlikely (and far more forceful) spokesman for the administration. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon released a written statement that seemed to flatly contradict Carney's suggestion that Obama might adopt the "zero option."
"This evening, senior Administration officials assured me that there is no 'zero option' scenario under consideration. I was assured that the United States has committed to post-2014 support to include troops on the ground. I was further informed that a 'zero option' would violate American commitments to the Afghan people," McKeon said.
"News of the 'zero option' damages our position in Afghanistan, erodes our standing with our allies, emboldens the Taliban, and demoralizes our troops. I call on the president to confirm the assurances of his senior officials and clarify his 'zero option' position," the California lawmaker said.