President Obama said this week that NATO's plan to turn the lead role in the fight in Afghanistan over to that country's own forces by next summer is "irreversible." That's what Americans, Britons and other NATO allies want to hear. The alliance has been in the embattled nation for too long and it's past time to come home.
If the Chicago summit makes the reality of the withdrawal crystal clear to everyone, everywhere, so much the better.
The departure of the alliance is not without risk, of course. The ability of the Afghan army and police forces to hold the nation together and protect it from the Taliban insurgency is dubious. Clearly, however, it also is doubtful that the United States and its allies could improve that situation by extending the stay of their forces there. One nation cannot forcibly change the culture and politics of another nation in even a century, let alone a decade or two. That certainly has been the history in Afghanistan, where a succession of empires has tried just that and failed.
The United States went to war in Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaida and expel the Taliban government. It has done both. But the larger goal of remaking Afghanistan into a stable political unit that can resist the return of the Taliban is unlikely to succeed.
However, the Taliban are not a monolith, and the various groups have different aspirations. There may be room in Afghanistan for some of them to play a constructive role. The people of Afghanistan are going to have to sort that out. The United States has tried to act as midwife to such negotiations, but so far has failed. Perhaps this country should just get out of the way.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's role in Afghanistan's affairs remains both critical and unhelpful. Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan are a major reason why the insurgency remains powerful. But the reason for Pakistan's fixation on Afghanistan the country's ongoing death match with India also remains unchanged. Pakistan always has played a double game with the United States. Pakistan's security service was the original sponsor of the Taliban in Afghanistan, after all, and that is unlikely to change, either.
In the face of these challenges, which are compounded by the inept and corrupt government of Hamid Karzai, the United States has committed some 90,000 troops to remaking Afghanistan and propping up the result. It keeps the Karzai government in power and trains the Afghan army and police forces. Now the Afghans must stand or fail on their own.
NATO has done what it can. Its troops should come home.