President Obama said on Wednesday that "the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance" in Afghanistan. For most Americans, polls suggest, that has become a far distance on a journey they no longer wish to make.
So the President's announcement of a timetable for troop withdrawals is welcome, despite its lack of detail about the future of America's Afghan policy.
After 10 years of war, more than 1,500 U.S. troops killed and more than 12,000 wounded, and $450 billion spent, the United States will begin to reduce its presence in Afghanistan by pulling out 10,000 troops by the end of this year and 23,000 more by the end of next summer -- in time for the 2012 presidential election. The goal is for Afghans to take over their own security by 2014.
White House aides insist the troop withdrawals are a consequence of U.S. success on the battlefield. They say Mr. Obama's goals are much more limited than those touted by the George W. Bush administration when U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan in 2001.
Military trainers, advisers, and other troops will remain in Afghanistan for years. U.S. military officials say building the Afghan army and police could take five or six more years. The troop reduction will have only a small effect on the U.S. budget in the near term, and a negligible impact on the national debt.
But questions remain. Will U.S.-trained Afghan soldiers and police be capable of combating a resurgent Taliban? Or will the Taliban reassert themselves, even retake the government, and again provide a safe haven for al-Qaeda terror operations against the United States?
The Taliban response to President Obama's speech was to reject a political settlement and insist on the complete withdrawal of foreign troops. Why should the Taliban negotiate if they can just wait until U.S. troops leave?
Will the Afghan government, already tainted by widespread corruption, survive? Yesterday, an Afghan court threw out about a quarter of the votes cast in last year's parliamentary contests. Nine months after elections, President Hamid Karzai has not seated a full cabinet.
What will happen to progress made in Afghanistan in education, health care, and other areas? Mr. Obama said the United States will have to do the "hard work of keeping the gains we have made," but doesn't say how.
In parts of the country cleared of the Taliban and terrorists by allied troops, markets are open and girls attend schools. Will that continue? Or will the poverty, illiteracy, tribalism, and social and religious conservatism that have been dented but not destroyed re-emerge?
There is danger for Pakistan as well in America's withdrawal from Afghanistan. President Obama did not explain how Afghanistan will be made at least minimally stable, or how relations with Pakistan -- damaged by the killing of Osama bin Laden in May -- will be repaired.
If Afghanistan falls into chaos, will the United States still be able to use bases there for attacks on al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan? Or will the forces of terror and instability gain the upper hand in Pakistan as well? A nuclear Pakistan in extremist hands is a frightening thought.
U.S. policy will have to address these questions. To "declare victory and just leave," as former Sen. George Aiken (R., Vt.) proposed three decades ago about the Vietnam war, is not acceptable
If Afghanistan is to survive, the United States must continue to provide financial support, military equipment, and extensive development aid. At the same time, it must keep pressure on the Karzai government to root out corruption and not to retreat from the gains made by women, children, and others.
Even if the devil is in the details, Afghanis whose hopes were raised by the U.S. invasion deserve those details, as assurance that they won't be abandoned.
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