President Obama has been of two minds towards Afghanistan since the outset of his presidency. In December 2009, en route to tripling the US military presence there, he declared that US military forces would begin to withdraw from the country in 18 months. Now, two-and-a-half years later, he stated that US military forces would continue to leave Afghanistan, but that US soldiers would remain in the country until at least 2024.
The announcement of the US-Afghan “Strategic Partnership Agreement” raises at least as many questions as it answers. How many US troops will remain in country after 2014 and what will be their precise role? What will be the ultimate scale of Afghan army and police forces? How much will all this cost, and what will be the US share? And what is the extent of the US commitment to Afghanistan if, as is all too possible, this mix of Afghan and US effort is not enough in the face of Taliban ruthlessness, the Pakistani provision of sanctuary for the Taliban and Afghan corruption and division?
The bigger question over the president’s speech is not that some US forces are to stay in Afghanistan – US forces have remained in other hot spots for decades and played a useful role – but centres on the purpose and scale of the ongoing commitment.
Why are they still there?
Mr Obama put forward two rationales. The first is that, absent this effort, “al-Qaeda could establish itself once more” inside the country. This is of course true. But it could regroup in Afghanistan even with this effort. More important, it is not clear how this possibility would distinguish Afghanistan from, say, Yemen or Somalia or Nigeria. The global effort against terror is just that – global – and there is no reason for the effort in Afghanistan to be large. It is not the central battleground in a struggle against an enemy with access to dozens of countries.
All of which takes us to the second rationale for the announced policy: “To finish the job we started in Afghanistan and end this war responsibly.”
But past sacrifice is a poor justification for continued sacrifice, unless it is warranted. The truth is that, while the United Sates still has interests in Afghanistan, none of them, other than opposing al-Qaeda, rise to the level of vital. And this vital interest can be addressed with a modest commitment of troops and dollars.
A version of this article was first published on the Council on Foreign Relations website.
Richard N Haass, a former director of policy planning in the US State Department, is President of the Council on Foreign Relations.