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Obama's Afghan exit

President Barack Obama bowed to the reality on the ground this week when he announced the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan won't be completed by the end of this year as planned. Mr. Obama once hoped to cut the 9,800 remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan by half over the next nine months and reduce that total to fewer than 1,000 by the time he leaves office in 2017. But the Taliban and al-Qaida haven't cooperated with his timetable, nor are the fledgling Afghan security forces ready to defend the country on their own yet. So the president has had to bite the bullet and keep a sizable force in Afghanistan even while insisting he still intends to bring all the troops home before his presidency ends.

The decision to keep a residual force of some 10,000 trainers and advisers in the country at least through the end of 2015 comes partly in response to an expectation that the fighting will intensify this summer and that U.S. forces will still need to be able to launch counter-terrorism operations from military bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad. The CIA uses sites in Kandahar to conduct drone strikes against militants in Pakistan while the drones flown in Afghanistan are operated by the American military. Mr. Obama's advisers have concluded 10,000 troops are the minimum number required to ensure those operations continue.

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Meanwhile, Afghan Special Forces are slated to take over roles played by American-led special operations troops, but they remain heavily dependent on the U.S. for operational planning, logistical support and intelligence. Afghan forces don't have armed drones, nor do they have sufficient capacity to airlift troops and supplies to the battlefield, a distinct disadvantage in a country dominated by mountainous landscapes broken by high passes through which militants can easily travel back and forth to safe havens in Pakistan.

Mr. Obama clearly does not want to repeat in Afghanistan the experience in Iraq that followed the precipitous withdrawal of all U.S. forces there in 2011. The sudden power vacuum left by the American departure from Iraq opened the door to meddling by Iran and allowed the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida, which had been defeated by U.S. troops allied with local Sunni fighters in 2005, to reassert itself under the name of the Islamic State. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who replaced former President Hamid Karzai as the country's leader after national elections last year, made a point of warning that Islamic State could establish a foothold in Afghanistan as well during his visit to Washington this week to meet with Mr. Obama.

Mr. Ghani, who shares power with his main domestic political rival, Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, has proved a much more reliable partner in the war on terror than the mercurial Mr. Karzai ever was — or, for that matter, the former Iraqi leaders whose refusal to cooperate on a status of forces agreement led to the American pullout there. Mr. Ghani has sought to reduce the rampant corruption that characterized Mr. Karzai's government and institutions, and he has been effusive in his praise of the American president's willingness to be flexible in terms of the timetable for an American troop withdrawal. If Mr. Obama hopes to achieve his goal of bringing all U.S. troops home by the end of 2016, he'll need Mr. Ghani's cooperation.

Mr. Obama's critics say his decision to slow the pace of the U.S. exit from Afghanistan doesn't go far enough because it still sets a date for an American departure that allows the insurgency to simply bide its time until the troops have left. Mr. Obama counters that he is extending his timetable now so that "we don't have to go back" later to try to rectify an even worse situation caused by a too-hasty departure. The president is well aware that most Americans are sick of the country's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and that they elected him partly on his promise to end America's longest foreign conflict. That's something that's still possible for him to accomplish during the remaining two years of his presidency, but it's also a reminder of the painful lesson of history that it's far easier to start a war than to end one.

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