Joel Brinkley: 'Zero Option' might be best option in Afghanistan

For American forces in Afghanistan, this should be the last straw.

It started in early July, when President Obama was once again so furious with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that for the first time he began talking about the so-called "Zero Option" -- bringing home the entire American military presence next year.

This came after Karzai lambasted the U.S. for trying to arrange peace negotiations with the Taliban. Lost in his latest fit of pique, Karzai summarily terminated the continuing negotiations over a long-term American presence in the state after the bulk of forces leave next year.

Today, with Karzai's latest display of greed and audacity, the Zero Option should be back on the table. Right now, Karzai's government is trying to level a $1,000 customs fee on every U.S. vehicle moving military equipment in shipping containers -- tanks, jeeps, APCs and the rest -- out of the state. Afghan troops have been blocking the exit roads until the U.S. pays up. Can you even imagine?

Think about how many pieces of equipment, wheeled and otherwise, the military has used in Afghanistan over the last 12 years. Already the Afghan government says the U.S. owes $70 million in these unpaid so-called customs fees. The Air Force can fly most of the equipment out of the country instead of using the roads, but the Pentagon says that would cost up to $2 billion more. Why should we pay that?

It's time to stop simply looking the other way every time Karzai tries to extort his American patrons. Karzai knows full well that all the military equipment was there to keep him, his colleagues and citizens alive.

With this, Karzai wins my prize for the most ungrateful, indecorous (and a few words not fit for print) world leader. He's the one who constantly harangues U.S. ambassadors and military commanders with the farcical accusation that America's goal is to "divide Pakistan and weaken Afghanistan" to pursue its fight against terrorists.

That came from a WikiLeaks disclosure a few years ago. He said as much during a speech to American officials, among others, in Doha this spring.

The WikiLeaks documents also showed Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul then, writing back to Washington: "Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development." Karzai's brother Wali, the memo added, "is widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker."

If the U.S. ambassador knew that, then of course so did Karzai. To this day, has he done anything about that -- or anything else of consequence? Of course not.

According to WikiLeaks, Omar Zakhilwal, the Afghan finance minister, told the Americans Karzai is "an extremely weak man who did not listen to facts but instead" chooses to believe "even the most bizarre stories and plots against him."

As for governance, even after the United States has spent more than $100 billion in development aid over the last decade, statewide literacy stands at 28 percent, the CIA says, while Afghanistan also still maintains the world's highest infant mortality rate -- 12 of every 100 children die before they reach age 1. What more do we need to say about Karzai's effectiveness as president for the last 12 years?

The available evidence, though, shows that the fate of his people is not even his smallest concern. Without a doubt, his first passion is making himself rich. Don't forget that while charging unwarranted customs fees at the border, his finance ministry has been levying nearly $1 billion in unwarranted taxes on United States aid agencies that build roads, schools, hospitals for the Afghan people -- even though the U.S. and Afghan governments signed agreements a decade ago saying these aid agencies were tax-exempt.

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that American support for the war is continuing to plummet. Now only 28 percent of those polled in July say the war has been worth fighting. That's an 11 percent drop just since March.

The vast majority of Americans, Democrats and Republicans, say it's past time to bring the troops home. And that was before they knew about these bogus "customs" charges. So far the military says it's not paying them. And, thus far, Karzai has not said a word about this, his latest shakedown. (Some of the proceeds would undoubtedly wind up in his pocket.)

The U.S. military has been talking about flying the equipment out, at great cost. Don't do it! Obama needs to tell Karzai to lift the border blockade, stop these endless extortion scams -- or the Zero Option will become the official U.S. policy.

(Joel Brinkley is the Hearst professional in residence at Stanford University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former correspondent for The New York Times.)

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