American troops have sacrificed too much in Afghanistan for the United States to leave that country to collapse into chaos or Taliban rule.
That’s unlikely to happen if it maintains a residual military force to support Afghan troops after the general withdrawal of American combat units by the end of next year. It’s good news that Secretary of State John Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai appear to have reached a deal that would keep perhaps 10,000 NATO personnel in Afghan after 2014.
Both the large pullout and the small force of left-behinds are part of long-term American plans.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and United States formally handed off responsibility for Afghanistan’s security to Karzai’s government last summer. By many accounts, Afghan forces are holding their own against Taliban insurgents in most of the country.
But they’re doing it with the help of Western training, advising, air support and reconnaissance. Afghanistan doesn’t yet have the air power to back up its troops, and it still depends heavily on American intelligence to track Taliban movements.
The ultimate goal is to either wear out the Taliban or force them into a political settlement with one of Karzai’s successors. If the Taliban expect Afghan troops to lose critical NATO support in the near future, they’ll scent victory and lose all incentive to deal.
Until last week, Karzai was demanding the impossible from the Obama administration.
Most intolerable was his insistence that U.S. troops accused of crimes be subjected to Afghan criminal justice. The United States allows this in some cases in Japan and Europe.
But those countries have advanced justice systems with real due process. Afghanistan does not, to say the least.
Karzai was also demanding that the United States guarantee the security of Afghanistan against outside attack, just as it does with its NATO allies. This was a recipe for entangling America in border wars with Pakistan – a prospect worse than the current conflict with the Taliban.
American negotiators had a tough demand of their own: the privilege of using special ops forces to target the several dozen al-Qaida operatives believed to be active in Afghan.
Kerry has reportedly finessed these differences, though a guarantee of criminal immunity for U.S. troops is still subject to approval by a traditional council of elders, the Loya Jirga, and the Afghan parliament. If Karzai is genuinely sold on the deal, he’s likely to get it past both groups.
Some in this country want America to be quit of Afghanistan entirely. But the United States already has a military presence in many countries, in some cases dating to World War II.
There’s a far better case for stabilizing troops in Afghanistan than there is, say, in Germany. As long as most Afghans want to keep some U.S. military support in place, there’s no reason to abandon the country to who knows what fate.