President Obama told the American people this week how he intends to end the war in Afghanistan. After most American troops leave that ravaged country by the end of 2014, some will remain behind to train Afghan government forces and to conduct anti-terrorism operations. That mission will continue for a decade, he said.
Though we understand the president's rationale for that continued U.S. commitment, it is based partly on a delusion. No outside nation has ever succeeded in pacifying Afghanistan or cementing stability there. If President Obama believes that the United States can be the first, he is wrong. History argues decisively against him.
The question, then, is whether the United States should try.
If the president's goal is to prop up the unpopular and superlatively corrupt government of President Hamid Karzai, he will surely fail. Of course, Karzai will not be around forever. Maybe the government that follows him will be a better one. But that's mostly wishful thinking.
Perhaps, though, the real goal is not so much to uphold the Afghan government as it is to retain a forward U.S. base of operations near Iran to the west and Pakistan to the east and south. While the president said this week that the United States will not hold on to permanent bases in Afghanistan beyond 2014, an American military presence there might provide the forward observation and intelligence capability necessary to continue to operate drone strikes and commando raids against al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan itself.
Whether Afghan government forces can provide the protection necessary for Americans to operate in this way is arguable. But so long as the remnants of al-Qaida continue to hide in Pakistan, there is an argument for the United States to retain a capability in Afghanistan.
The key to the future may be reaching an accommodation with the Taliban. The president acknowledged this week that the United States has been negotiating with the Taliban in the hope that elements of it will abandon efforts to topple the Afghan government and return to the country peacefully. However, the Taliban movement is not a monolith. Some factions and leaders may welcome accommodation, others not. Separating Talibs from al-Qaida is the crux of it.
Ironically, the American presence in Afghanistan gives life to the Taliban. If the infidel invaders depart, part of the Taliban's reason for being goes with them.
So the key to American strategy remains to get out, and sooner rather than later. Beyond that, the United States will have to improvise, as Afghanistan itself changes.