The U.S.-led coalition's commander in Afghanistan warned against withdrawing all troops from the country next year, telling the Wall Street Journal discussions of the so-called "zero option" were damaging to the mission.
Talks about the zero option have grown in recent weeks in Washington and Kabul, and U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford said he didn't see a total military exit from Afghanistan as an option, but as a possible outcome should the two countries fail to reach an agreement on a post-2014 U.S. military presence:
"Anyone who reinforces this idea of December 2014 as being Y2K or a cliff that the Afghan people are going to fall off is actually being unhelpful," he said in the interview.
"An option to me is something you plan against," he said. "And we are not planning against the zero option."
For months, administration officials have said President Barack Obama might consider a complete pullout from Afghanistan, a posture many Afghan officials view as a negotiating tactic in the sensitive talks about the post-2014 American military role here.
Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai's relationship has deteriorated over the past year and reached another low when the U.S. sought peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar, and the Wall Street Journal reports U.S. officials have suggested more strongly that the administration's patience with Karzai is wearing thin. However, Dunford said even the possibility of complete U.S. withdrawal had already damaged morale there:
Without a clear signal from leadership at all levels, he said, Afghans will continue to worry about the international community's wavering support for their country.
While the mandate for the U.S.-led military coalition doesn't expire until the end of 2014, Gen. Dunford said advance planning would have to begin in earnest by this fall if there is to be a post-2014 North Atlantic Treaty Organization mission.
A new mission, which would focus on training and advising Afghan security forces, is supposed to take over from the International Security Assistance Force that Gen. Dunford commands—provided the suspended security talks between Washington and Kabul resume and succeed.