Afghan timetable


President Obama’s meeting last week with Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, yielded an important decision but left two key issues unresolved.

At its outset, the Afghan war was justified as a U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks. But it has dragged on for 11 years, costing the country $1.2 trillion at a time of straitened financial circumstances.

It also has cost more than 2,100 American lives. Some of those deaths came at the hands of uniformed Afghans, whom Americans were ostensibly training to defend their own country.

Some Afghans too are ready to see American troops depart. They resent the elements of the U.S. presence that amount to de facto occupation. They don’t like some of the military actions in their villages. They especially dislike drone and other air attacks on Afghans, which sometimes claim the lives of civilians.

Some Afghans have profited financially from the U.S. presence, through development projects as well as payments for services to our forces. But an unhealthy culture of dependence has evolved over the past decade.

President Obama said last week that U.S. forces will hand over the combat role to Afghan forces this spring. That is sooner than originally planned — although if U.S. analysis of the state of readiness is to be believed, Afghan forces may not be ready to assume that responsibility.

Mr. Obama’s public statements left two other issues unclear. The first was the pace and timetable of the withdrawal of the 66,000 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan. That matter is important to Afghans, but also to the NATO countries that have forces there.

The second, more important question is how many troops the United States will leave behind to continue training Afghan forces and to fend off any return of al-Qaeda, after the bulk of American forces have been withdrawn.

The answer to the first question should be: as fast as possible. The answer to the second should be: as few as possible.

Oversight and response to any return of al-Qaeda to Afghanistan can and should be assured by deploying satellite, drone, and other U.S. air assets, not by leaving Americans behind and vulnerable.