WASHINGTON — In January, when U.S. officials first raised the prospect of keeping no troops in Afghanistan after 2014, this "zero option" was broadly seen as a rhetorical bargaining chip the White House was using to nudge along talks over a long-term security agreement.
But an increasingly acrimonious stalemate between the officials and Afghanistan's recalcitrant president has made the prospect quite real. After its longest war in history, the United States is suddenly contemplating having to dismantle the bulk of its counterterrorism infrastructure in the region and abandon Afghanistan's fledgling security forces. A wholesale withdrawal would also shut down the foreign-aid pipeline that keeps the Afghan state afloat and sharply limit any enduring U.S. diplomatic presence.
The uncertainty over the long-term security deal — which President Hamid Karzai has threatened not to sign by the end of the year, as the United States has demanded — has the potential to be particularly damaging on the eve of Afghanistan's presidential election, scheduled to take place next spring, U.S. officials say.
"If it doesn't happen, if this anxiety grows, you project into the upcoming electoral period a degree of instability caused by growing alarm at Afghanistan returning to the 1990s," said James Dobbins, the State Department's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. "It's every man for himself, where losers in the election don't just go into the opposition but get killed or go into exile. It's winner takes all."
Tensions between Kabul and Washington intensified Friday when the U.S.-led military coalition acknowledged it had launched airstrikes the day before that killed a child and injured two women in southern Afghanistan. Karzai angrily billed the strike as further proof that the United States has little regard for the lives of Afghan civilians.
U.S. officials signaled last week they were reasonably optimistic that Karzai would soon relent and sign the bilateral security agreement, which sets the rules for an enduring U.S. military presence after the U.N. mandate that governs its role expires in December 2014. But following Thursday's civilian casualties, Afghan officials said he was even more reluctant to sign the document promptly.
Officials at the Pentagon, who have come to see the public warnings of a zero option as counterproductive, said last week that the White House has not asked the Defense Department to draw up plans for a full withdrawal.
U.S. military planners have been operating under the assumption that they would retain a force of between 8,000 and 12,000 U.S. and allied troops at bases in the capital and in the four corners of the country. Key among those would be U.S.-led hubs in the south and east. That presence would allow U.S. intelligence personnel and special operations forces to remain within easy striking distance of insurgent groups in the tribal area that straddles the border with Pakistan.
Washington would also like to maintain the ability to target al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan and other groups that have plotted attacks on the West, including the Pakistani Taliban.
With no bases in Afghanistan, its ability to do so would be severely restricted. U.S. officials could try to carve out a hub in a Central Asian state north of Afghanistan. Alternatively, the United States could rely solely on Navy ships to launch strikes in the region.
"It would get longer, slower and harder," said Linda Robinson, an analyst with the RAND think tank who has spent time in recent years with U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials say that finalizing a deal soon is imperative to allow plans to be drawn up for the military campaign next year. A full exit would require a different set of priorities and more resources to fully dismantle all U.S. bases by the end of the year.
NATO allies that have pledged to keep troops in Afghanistan are also waiting for the U.S. deal to be signed because it will serve as a template for the one that would cover other coalition members, most of whom will not remain without a U.S. presence.
Some U.S. officials argue that Karzai appears to be drawing the process out to bolster his legacy at the end of his mandate, operating under the assumption that the threats of a full pullout are empty ones.
"I don't know if he fully realizes the risks," Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told the Wall Street Journal last week. "He certainly understands it from an Afghan perspective. I don't know if he fully appreciates what the implications are for the United States."
Robinson said Karzai's political calculus could turn out to be wrong. "I think the administration has very limited appetite for this," she said. "He could be stepping off the cliff."