As we have pointed out before, there has been more progress in Afghanistan recently than most Americans realize. The Afghan army took over the lead combat role across the country this summer and has been keeping the Taliban at bay. Last week President Hamid Karzai confounded some skeptics by signing a new electoral law that could set the stage for the first peaceful transfer of power in the country’s history next year.

While the Obama administration has brokered or facilitated much of that progress, it has also made two major errors that threaten to undo it. First was its mishandling of the opening of a Taliban office in Doha last month. Billed as the inauguration of an “Afghan-led” peace process, it backfired when Taliban members declared that they were representing the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” — a claim that implied non-recognition of the present government. An infuriated Karzai responded by breaking off talks with the United States about an agreement for U.S. trainers, advisers and counterterrorism operatives to remain in the country after 2014.

The White House’s second error was to let it be known, following Karzai’s intemperate reaction, that a “zero option,” in which all U.S. military personnel would be withdrawn from Afghanistan next year, was back on the table. A full withdrawal would be at odds with the strategic partnership pact already signed by the two governments and NATO’s agreement in June on a post-2014 “concept of operations” in the country — not to mention President Barack Obama’s repeated public pledges that the United States would continue to stand behind Afghanistan. It would repeat the fateful U.S. mistake of abandoning the country following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, which opened the way to a civil war that brought the Taliban to power and created a haven for al-Qaida.

A common assumption is that the White House is bluffing about the zero option in order to pressure Karzai. But this tactic is counterproductive. As the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph Dunford, told the Wall Street Journal, “Anyone who reinforces this idea of December 2014 as being . . . a cliff that the Afghan people are going to fall off is actually being unhelpful.”

The reasons are simple: The notion that the United States might entirely withdraw encourages the Taliban to fight on and refuse further negotiations; it also motivates Pakistan to maintain its support for the insurgents as a hedge. It shows insecurity among Afghans, including in the U.S.-built army, during a critical time of transition.

The best way for Obama to manage Karzai, as a report co-authored by former commander Gen. John R. Allen argued, would be to state clearly what follow-on force the United States was prepared to provide for Afghanistan. Since most Afghans strongly favor such a force, that would put pressure on the Afghan president to reopen talks on an agreement.

As for the administration’s current gambit of hinting at a complete pullout, it’s hard to disagree with the assessment of former ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan C. Crocker, in an interview with columnist Trudy Rubin: “If it’s a tactic, it is mindless; if it is a strategy, it is criminal.”

The Washington Post (July 24)