The war in Afghanistan is far from over

After placing a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, President Obama took special note in his Memorial Day remarks that the war in Afghanistan was “winding down” and our troops were on their way “home.” This has been a constant refrain of the president for the past month.

On May 1st from Kabul, President Obama hailed the signing of a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan as marking “a future in which the war ends, and a new chapter begins.”

He repeated this theme at the Chicago NATO Summit, saying that as American and coalition forces complete the transition of handing over responsibility for Afghan security to Afghan forces next year, the “Afghan war as we understand it is over.” Even though the Taliban have not been defeated and Afghan remains far from stable, the Obama administration has reportedly been seeking what they call an “Afghan good enough” solution.

The president’s emphasis on ending the war, as opposed to winning it, perhaps comes as no surprise to conservatives now but it certainly stands in marked contrast to what many of us took to be his seriousness to fight the “right” war in 2009 in the right way. That year, Obama twice ordered troop increases, resulting in U.S. force levels reaching 100,000 and, equally important, signaled his commitment to undertake a serious counterinsurgency campaign in key areas of the country.

Of course, there was reason at the time to doubt his fortitude. The president kept “the surge” numbers to the bare minimum recommended by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan at the time, and announced an arbitrary date of July 2011 for the start of their return home.

Those doubts grew when Obama then ordered that the drawdown be completed by September 2012, a date obviously dictated by political, not strategic calculations. And now, in conjunction with our NATO allies, the administration has decided to turn over primary responsibility for security to Afghan forces in mid-2013 rather than the previously decided handover in 2014.

With this sped up withdrawal, combined with recent reports that the president never fully backed his own strategy, it’s important to remember that it was not just the moral clarity of punishing those who had attacked us on 9/11 that drove us to aim high. The United States was confronted by a fundamentalist strain of Islam that emerged from the ideological cesspool that was Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. It was a common belief at the time that the terrorist threat could not be addressed without addressing Afghanistan’s core problems.

President Obama’s drawdown strategy formally aims to maintain a stable Afghan state. But there are significant questions about the willingness of America and our allies to continue to stay engaged with a frustratingly inchoate Afghan political system given the significant diplomatic and financial support that will be required well beyond 2014.

And there are just as many questions about the level of American and allied military support the Afghans can count on past that date. While the recently signed Strategic Partnership Agreement commits the United States to a long-term presence in Afghanistan, its terms are vague enough that the Obama administration has left itself plenty of room to maneuver.

Moreover, several aspects of the agreement actually undermine our strategic posture in South Asia in the coming decades. Just as the American military’s withdrawal from Iraq empowered Iran, the administration’s pledges under the agreement to forgo “permanent military facilities,” ensure that its military presence is not “a threat to Afghanistan’s neighbors,” or use “Afghan territory or facilities as a launching point for attacks against other countries,” cannot help but reduce our strategic leverage with Iran.

Nor can it be said that a reduced U.S. presence in Afghanistan will increase Pakistani stability—which reportedly the President believes is the greater threat to American interests. How will Pakistani stability be increased by a weak and potentially failing state on its border?

Afghanistan does not exist in a vacuum. Failure in Afghanistan also will have implications in regions outside of Central Asia. America’s allies and partners from the Middle East to East Asia are closely watching to see whether we will prematurely abandon our Afghan allies.

For example, a key element to our “pivot” to Asia is developing long-term strategic ties to India. But Indians will be watching closely how Afghanistan goes not only because a chaotic Afghanistan can create even more tension with Pakistan but because it will be a signal of Washington’s own lack of strategic seriousness. As Indian scholar Harsh Pant wrote last year, “New Delhi has been contemplating the impact of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan for while. If the U.S. left lock, stock and barrel, India would be left to pick up the pieces.”

In the near future, Afghanistan will not be a Westernized democracy a la Switzerland, but if the hard fought gains of the last two years can be sustained and expanded, rather than abandoned, we can help ensure that a functioning Afghan state does not harbor threats, but is actually a net positive on America’s strategic ledger. But for that to happen, we have to be clear to ourselves, Afghans, and our allies that this is not a war that is over and that an “Afghan good enough” strategy is not likely to be good enough for America.

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