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Published: 5/3/2012

GUEST EDITORIAL

Missed chance

President Obama gave his first speech on Afghanistan in nearly a year, speaking from Bagram Air Field on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's killing. The White House set it up as a big moment, but the President squandered the chance to explain fully his exit strategy for a war Americans are desperate to see brought to an end.

Mr. Obama repeated his commitment that U.S. combat troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2014, and that Afghan troops would be ready long before that to take over prime responsibility for fighting the Taliban. But the speech was frustratingly short on specifics.

Mr. Obama didn't explain what the United States and its allies will do to improve the training of Afghan forces so they can hold off the Taliban. Nor did he explain what President Hamid Karzai plans to do to rein in the corruption and incompetence that are the hallmarks of his leadership and that have alienated so many of his own people, playing into the hands of the Taliban.

We have long supported the war in Afghanistan as a painful but necessary fight to ensure that al-Qaeda does not again have a major launching pad for attacking the United States. But we are increasingly concerned that Mr. Obama does not have a clear policy to ensure that the country does not implode once the Americans are gone.

The President's brief, unannounced trip accomplished one thing: He signed a long-delayed strategic partnership agreement with Mr. Karzai that is intended to signal that the United States will not cut and run, even after the 2014 withdrawal. That agreement is also short on specifics, but U.S. officials say that Washington -- and, they hope, NATO allies -- will provide troops for years to come, and billions in military and economic aid.

That may be a disappointment to Americans. But the United States will need some presence to keep pummeling al-Qaeda and the Taliban on either side of the Pakistan-Afghan border.

That longer-term commitment sends an important message to Afghans that Washington will not abandon them as it did after the Soviets were driven out, and that it is worth taking a chance on their government despite its deficiencies.

It also tells the Taliban that they can't just wait out the West, and need to consider seriously Mr. Obama's offer of negotiations. Pakistan has long believed it has to hedge its bets by cutting side deals with extremists. We don't know whether this will change minds in Pakistan, but it takes away a rhetorical excuse.

The timing of Mr. Obama's visit on the anniversary of the bin Laden kill was contrived. But his speech, wisely, had only a tinge of triumphalism. He said Washington has "devastated al-Qaeda's leadership" and insisted "the goal that I set -- to defeat al-Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild -- is now within our reach."

Mr. Obama's political message, and motivation, for this trip were undeniable. Still, he deserves enormous credit for going after bin Laden and for the relentless pursuit of al-Qaeda's leaders in Pakistan. He has made far more progress, with far less posturing, than his predecessor, President George W. Bush.

Mr. Obama's strongest argument for staying in Afghanistan two more years is that it is the main base for continuing that fight, and that by 2014, the United States will be able to withdraw without seeing it turn into a haven for al-Qaeda. He didn't make the case this week.

-- New York Times



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