President Obama’s decision to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan through 2016 satisfies neither those who demand immediate withdrawal nor those who condemn his plan as a craven retreat. Still, the President’s timetable responsibly balances the need to end America’s military presence in Afghanistan with a reasonable opportunity to prepare Afghan forces to defend their country at last.
The President said this week that he will reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from the current 32,000 — down from 100,000 at its height — to 9,800 by the end of this year. The latter figure will decline by half in 2015; by the start of 2017, effectively at the end of Mr. Obama’s presidency, only enough forces would be left to guard the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and to provide training and counterterrorism help to the Afghan military.
The two-year delay in Mr. Obama’s exercise of the “zero option” for drawing down U.S. forces should encourage Afghanistan’s next president to sign a security agreement with the United States. Both candidates in next month’s runoff election say they will do so —unlike the outgoing president, the corrupt and incompetent Hamid Karzai, who refused. Either moderate candidate offers the prospect of better leadership.
There seems little reason for optimism that the Taliban will be eliminated by the end of the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. But after 13 years of war, and the deaths of more than 2,300 Americans, it seems clear that even a permanent U.S. presence would not deliver that outcome.
The things that can be hoped for now — and the agenda remains considerable — include a continued strengthening of Afghan military and police forces so that they represent a meaningful counterweight to Taliban fanatics and other insurgents, a more honest and effective central government, and protection of the rights of women and girls to get an education and assume the roles they deserve in the life of the country. Mr. Obama’s timetable provides breathing space to address these goals, while limiting the exposure of the residual force to active combat.
Afghan security forces oversaw relatively free and fair national elections last month, despite threats of Taliban violence that mostly didn’t occur. The country’s economy continues to grow. These are strengths to build on.
As the President noted this week, the initial objective for the deployment of troops to Afghanistan — to prevent al-Qaeda from using the country as a safe haven for planning attacks on the United States — was achieved. But it was a proper expression of that mission, by the United States and its Western allies, to help Afghanistan overcome the legacy of Taliban oppression. It still is.
Critics warn that setting a deadline for the U.S. withdrawal will encourage the Taliban to consolidate their forces and pursue a takeover of Afghanistan as soon as the American troops are gone. That’s a legitimate concern, but the timetable also gives Afghans a certain date by which they will have to take responsibility for their security. That includes addressing the country’s ethnic and regional divisions.
Americans clearly want U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. Nothing is guaranteed, but President Obama’s proposal offers the prospect of doing so without sacrificing the hard-won gains in peace, democracy, and economic stability that American involvement has helped to achieve.