Addressing the nation from Kabul on Tuesday, President Barack Obama offered what may be his clearest statement yet about what he sees as the American role in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO combat troops in 2014 — along with a healthy dose of realism about what the U.S. can and can't ultimately expect to accomplish there.
The president said the U.S. would gradually transition responsibility for the country's security to Afghan forces over the next two years, after which a scaled-back American military presence would assume a mostly training and advisory role. In addition, the U.S. will offer economic and development aid, support anti-terrorist missions to prevental-Qaidafrom regaining a foothold in the country and encourage efforts to root out corruption in the Afghan government.
But the key element in the president's speech — and one we consider long overdue — was his acknowledgment of the fact that there are some things that only the Afghans can do. "Our goal is not to build a country in America's image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban," Mr. Obama said. "These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars and many more American lives." Implicit in that statement was the recognition that Americans are no longer willing to continue making such open-ended sacrifices, particularly in a country that often seems ambivalent at best about our efforts.
In saying there are practical limits to America's ability to transform Afghanistan, the president was stating explicitly what has been apparent for years. To paraphrase an idea often expressed in regard to the halting Mideast peace process, Americans can't want a stable, democratic Afghanistan more than the Afghans themselves do. If Afghans want to build a modern, democratic society that respects the rights of women and minorities and gives all its citizens greater opportunity to better their lives and those of their children, they are going to have to do it themselves. We can't do it for them.
That's not the same as abandoning our commitments to an ally, a charge that we expect may be leveled against the president by his political opponents during this election year. Mr. Obama isn't proposing we simply walk away from Afghanistan, much as many opponents of the war might like to, nor that our role there should be limited only to counter-terrorist missions against al-Qaida and its Taliban supporters. On the contrary, he has emphasized that the American troop withdrawal must be accomplished in a responsible manner that gives the Afghan security forces we have trained ample time to become strong enough to defend the country from internal and external threats.
There is certainly reason to doubt whether the Afghan police and military will be fully up to the task by 2014, but there is also reason to doubt that our staying a year or two longer will make much difference.
The grand project of a comprehensive, American-administered program of "nation-building" in Afghanistan once championed by the Bush administration is clearly an unsustainable policy whose most likely result would lead to disappointment on both sides. There are too many historical, political and cultural differences between the two countries for either to easily identify a common core of values on which to build. We can't make them want education for women and girls, fair elections and clean government or the rule of law, and we're only likely to end up frustrated if we attempt to impose these things on them against their will.
What we can do is focus our efforts on dismantling and disrupting what remains of al-Qaida's network there so that it can never again use Afghanistan as a base for attacks on the U.S. and its allies. If the Taliban can be persuaded through negotiations to break with al-Qaida, renounce violence and abide by the laws of the Afghan government, we should make our peace with them and welcome them back into the political process. Their views may always be abhorrent, but they are still Afghans, and they have a right to participate in their country's future as long as they don't threaten us.
But beyond that, Mr. Obama is right that we can't make Afghanistan over in our image and that it is fruitless to try. After our troops leave at the end of 2014, it will be up to the Afghans to manage their affairs and determine how they will be governed. We can offer advice, encouragement and technical and financial assistance, but in the end it will be up to them to create the kind of society they can live with.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun