When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey faces 60 other defense chiefs from NATO and its partner nations next week in Brussels, he'll likely have to answer for one new development: the "zero option."
White House national security staffers, to much surprise, floated to the press this week that they had requested, and the Pentagon delivered, plans for leaving no U.S. troops behind in Afghanistan after 2014. It was a far cry from the pledges that President Barack Obama asked NATO allies to make at the Chicago summit last May, and on which foreign defense chiefs largely delivered with pledges of thousands of troops and billions of dollars for years to come in Afghanistan.
"They didn't know," the zero option was coming, a senior defense official tells the E-Ring. Now Dempsey expects that issue will the main concern for military leaders at the usually un-newsworthy event.
In Europe, Pentagon officials believe that political leaders may like the idea of getting out of Afghanistan, a wholly unpopular war. But military leaders are seen as more committed to continuing their mission at some level, so as not to lose what was gained. They've also undoubtedly expended political capital convincing their elected heads of state to stick with the United States.
Dempsey, on Thursday in the Pentagon, said he gave the option to the White House staff but has not yet presented it or discussed it with the president, so would not comment further.
"You know, we've said, I think, from the start that no option is entirely off the table. It'll depend on the conditions."
As outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ambles through his final overseas trip next week through some of Europe's finest capitals, Dempsey will attend the two-day winter conference with the chiefs of defense (known as CHODs) starting Wednesday. Gen. John Allen, commander of International Security Assitance Force, also will be in Brussels to brief the NATO chiefs.
Other topics officially on the agenda include "a wide variety of alliance military issues including NATO operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo, counter-piracy, NATO-Russia military cooperation, and emerging security challenges facing the alliance," said Col. David Lapan, the chairman's spokesman.
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Kevin Baron reports on the people and policies driving the Pentagon and the national security establishment in The E-Ring.