Soldiers board an Air Force C-130 bound for Joint Base Lewis-McChord

Soldiers board an Air Force C-130 bound for Joint Base Lewis-McChord U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Chad A. Dulac

Dempsey Says ‘Zero Option’ on the Table for Afghanistan As Karzai Balks

While the Afghan president continues to play politics with a post-2014 troop deal, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey says the ‘zero option’ is on the table. By Stephanie Gaskell

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said there’s still a chance that the U.S. military in Afghanistan will pack up and go home next year, as the erratic Afghan President Hamid Karzai hesitates to sign a deal that would allow thousands of U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan past the 2014 withdrawal.

Dempsey’s comments on Wednesday reflect an increasingly frustrated Obama administration. His remarks at a Pentagon press conference came as Secretary of State John Kerry began publicly seeking a path around Karzai’s authority, trying to see if the bilateral security agreement can be signed instead by Afghan Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi. Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that they’d be willing to have just about anyone sign the deal, as long as it’s legally binding.

Even though a BSA has been reached, there’s growing concern that Karzai’s unexpected series of demands will derail the whole thing. He’s refusing to sign the deal (even though a powerful group of Afghan elders, or loya jirga, approved it) before next April’s presidential election to replace him. The U.S. and Afghanistan agreed last year to have a deal signed this year, however, in part because military planners wanted to be able to plan for a post-war presence in Afghanistan. If the BSA is not signed, the war will end next year and coalition troops may just start packing up and go home. Hagel said last month that if Afghanistan delays signing the agreement, he would advise President Obama to halt planning for military operations beyond 2014.

“I have not been told to plan for a zero option, but clearly, I understand that it is a possibility given the current impasse,” Dempsey told reporters during a press briefing with Hagel at the Pentagon. Dempsey has long stressed that he is not planning to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.

Karzai said on Wednesday that he would not permit any of his ministers to sign the deal, according to Reuters. The Afghan Parliament would still have to approve the deal, but with cabinet approval that would likely happen.

“The loya jirga enthusiastically, strongly endorsed that text, that agreement, and strongly recommended to President Karzai to sign it. Every public official we've heard from in Afghanistan has strongly supported the signing of that agreement,” Hagel said.

“Now, the issue of who has the authority to speak for the sovereign nation of Afghanistan, I suppose the lawyers can figure that out. What we would be interested in, certainly as secretary of defense, is whatever document is agreed to, and as you know it has to go to their parliament for ratification, not unlike our Senate and a treaty. And if it's ratified by their parliament, then whether it's the minister of defense or the president, someone who has the authority to sign on behalf of Afghanistan -- I suspect -- I suspect that would fulfill the kind of commitment we need. But I don't want to veer too much further into legal territory until I have a further understanding of what exactly the authorities are,” he said.