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Three Steps Forward in Afghanistan

Prospects for long-term stability in Afghanistan have ticked up just a notch in the last few days. First, President Obama backloaded the withdrawal of 34,000 U.S. troops over the next year, leaving the vast majority of them in place during the fighting season that will not end until late fall. Second, Obama appears to have delayed any decision on what size force the U.S. will leave after 2014–a prudent measure given the unpredictability of any battlefield and the danger of imposing a precooked politically-ordained number that will have the effect of undercutting Afghan security forces.

Now, even more significantly, the Obama administration appears to have decided to delay cutting the size of the Afghan security forces. They now number 350,000, a figure which requires some $6 billion in annual foreign (mainly American) support. The plan had been to cut their ranks back to 240,000 or even fewer by 2015, which would reduce their cost to $4 billion but would also have the unfortunate impact of laying off more than 100,000 soldiers and police at a time when NATO troop numbers are also rapidly falling.

It is hard to imagine a more destabilizing development, especially given the likelihood that the only place where the unemployed security men could find employment would be among the ranks of the Taliban and drug traffickers.

Obama deserves credit for rethinking this short-sighted approach. Perhaps he is realizing at long last that an overly hasty withdrawal of American personnel and dollars from Afghanistan, whatever its short-term political benefit (negligible at any rate for a president who will never seek another electoral office), could harm his historical reputation and undo all that U.S. troops under his command have fought so hard to achieve in recent years.