Outside editorial: Afghanistan, without illusion

The following editorial first appeared in the Miami Herald:

President Barack Obama said a lot of fine things in his Tuesday-night speech from Afghanistan — about American commitment, about the sacrifice of U.S. troops, about finishing the job responsibly. But he was long on vision and short on specifics, raising questions about the future and wisdom of U.S. policy.

It is doubly hard to share Obama’s upbeat tone after he signed a deal with Afghanistan’s notoriously unreliable leader, Hamid Karzai, to prolong some kind of U.S. presence through 2024. Karzai is sometimes our friend, sometimes not. He has been critical, often openly disdainful, of the U.S.-led coalition and its leaders.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once referred to Afghanistan under his leadership as a “narco-state” with a government “plagued by limited capacity and widespread corruption.” Little evident progress has been made on that front.

After more than 10 years of war, stability remains an elusive goal. No speech can change that. Obama declared that the Taliban’s momentum had been stopped — “We’ve turned the tide” — but the Taliban unequivocally remains a potent force, capable of wreaking havoc even in relatively safe Kabul. As if to underline the point, the Taliban took responsibility for a suicide car bomb detonated outside a compound that houses contractors and aid workers just hours after Mr. Obama’s speech. At least seven people were reported killed and 17 others wounded.

The commitment of Afghans to build a safe and secure country is the indispensable ingredient for stability. It remains a major question mark. Obama said the “partnership” signed with Karzai sends a message to the people of Afghanistan: “As you stand up, you will not stand alone.”

That’s a mighty big if. The Afghan military is not capable of holding its own against the Taliban even with the support of a strong U.S. and allied troop presence. There is little reason to believe it can do better as U.S. and NATO troops pull out.

All of this makes it extremely unlikely that the United States can withdraw its forces and leave behind a government with guaranteed staying power.

Nor should that be the goal. It was in the U.S. national interest to go after Osama bin Laden and his gang and end the possibility that Afghanistan could ever again serve as a safe haven for killers who pose a direct threat to this country. By and large, the taming of al-Qaida has been accomplished, with the killing of bin Laden confirming its decline

The Taliban is something else — a reflection of the decades-long struggle for power within Afghanistan that the United States cannot resolve for the Afghan people.

As a shrewd politician, Obama realizes that this country is war-weary. We have been there too long, spent too much money, offered too much sacrifice in blood. He emphasized that the United States will build no permanent bases there “nor will we be patrolling its cities and mountains.” That is reassuring, as is the renewed commitment to an exit strategy that calls for withdrawing U.S. troops by the end of 2014.

But the “partnership” doesn’t say what the U.S. role will be after that, nor what the U.S. pledge to provide help until 2024 consists of and what cost that will entail. As long as there is any U.S. government presence, Americans will be inviting targets for the Taliban.

Americans should be under no illusion about Afghanistan’s future. Obama’s vision of a self-sufficient, stable Afghanistan is laudable. But it’s probably not within reach.

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