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Which way in Afghanistan?

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With the first anniversary of the U.S. "surge" in Afghanistan coming up in August, President Barack Obama will soon have to decide whether to maintain the current force levels or begin withdrawing some of the 30,000 additional troops he ordered there last year. The surge has largely succeeded in its primary goal of breaking the Taliban's momentum, and that has given Afghan government security forces breathing room to build up their strength and effectiveness. As a result, the president now has an opportunity to fulfill his promise last year to begin reducing the size of the American presence there.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who will retire from his post at the end of this month, has cautioned against a too-rapid pullout that could allow the Taliban to return to areas they were driven out of during last year's fighting. He argues that the insurgency, though weakened, has not been defeated, and that the U.S. military needs to keep up the pressure if the administration is to have any hope of persuading the Taliban to enter eventual peace negotiations with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

While we share many of Mr. Gates' concerns, we find more compelling Vice President Joseph Biden's argument that the killing of Osama bin Laden last month by Navy SEALs, and the growing competence of the Afghan national army and police, have changed the strategic landscape in Afghanistan. Given its long history of resisting foreign occupiers, there never was much chance the U.S. could remake Afghanistan into a Western-style democracy, no matter how much we spent there or how many lives we lost. Our primary interest in that country is that it doesn't again become a haven for terrorists intent on attacking the West, and that goal may be achievable at far less cost through a strategy based on drone strikes and special forces raids rather than through a protracted attempt at nation-building.

Nation-building is at the core of the counterinsurgency strategy developed by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan. It is based on the idea that support for the militants can be undermined by military operations aimed at protecting the civilian population and by constructing roads, schools and hospitals that win their loyalty to the government and spur economic development. But that strategy has been undermined by the endemic corruption of the Karzai government, and its costs are staggering.

The counter-terrorism strategy advocated by Vice President Biden relies on a leaner fighting force to directly confront terrorist targets, a strategy that requires precise intelligence and quick reaction times. That's the kind of military intervention that resulted in bin Laden's death and the capture of other high-ranking al-Qaida operatives, and it may be sufficient to keep the terrorist threat in Afghanistan in check, especially given that the U.S. may be called on to address similar threats in other countries, such as Yemen. Keeping 100,000 troops bogged down in Afghanistan clearly is not the most efficient use of this country's resources.

Mr. Gates is right that any drawdown in Afghanistan must be accomplished gradually and that it must be carefully planned so as not to sacrifice the gains that already have been made. He's suggested that as far as possible, the initial withdrawal should focus on reducing the number of support personnel rather than combat troops and that the president should establish an overall time frame for the operation. Decisions about which units to bring home and the exact date of their departure would be left up to commanders in the field. Recent comments from CIA Director Leon Panetta, whom Mr. Obama has nominated to take over from Mr. Gates as defense secretary next month, suggest that he shares this view.

As public support for the war continues to wane, the administration needs to work toward a regional solution that encourages Afghanistan's neighbors — including Pakistan, India, Iraq, Iran and Russia — to recognize their own stake in preventing the country from relapsing into chaos when the NATO mission there ends in 2014. None of them wants to see the conflict there spill out of control across their borders, but, as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger argued in The Washington Post this week, that is a real risk if the country splinters along ethnic and sectarian lines into rival factions exploited as proxies by outside powers.

Mr. Obama came into office pledging to wind down the war in Iraq and focus on Afghanistan. In Iraq, the U.S. appears on track to fulfill that promise. The outcome isn't nearly as clear in Afghanistan, but given the heavy toll in money and lives the conflict has taken over the last decade, it's time for the president to show that he's just as committed to extricating American forces from that potential quagmire as well.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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