The success of American military commitments is usually in direct proportion to their longevity. Post-war Germany, Japan, and South Korea turned out to be big success stories in no small part because U.S. troops are still based there. Kosovo continues to progress for the same reason. Somalia, Haiti, Lebanon, and Iraq, among others, are still troubled because U.S. troops have departed. The same thing happened with Reconstruction–it failed largely because Washington pulled federal troops out of the South prematurely.
For this reason it is good news to see the U.S. and Afghanistan bridging their differences to reach agreement on an accord to keep U.S. forces there past 2014–if that is in fact what has happened. That is certainly what was hailed by the Obama administration yesterday, but today the erratic Hamid Karzai threw a predictable spanner into the works by saying at the opening of a Loya Jirga in Kabul that the agreement should not be signed until sometime next year, possibly by his successor.
Assuming the accord is actually signed and implemented, it will bolster Afghanistan’s prospects for the future and hurt the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies who are scheming to return to power. The Obama administration deserves credit for prolonging what is already an unpopular military commitment even if there is cause for concern about the size of the force the president is prepared to send. No decisions have been reached, but news accounts suggest that Obama is contemplating sending only 4,000 to 8,000 personnel to perform counter-terrorism and advisory work, and that none of the advisors will be deployed in the field where they could be most effective.
It is a mystery where this figure comes from since military commanders have recommended a bare minimum of 13,000 or so troops. For some reason Obama seems to think that a much smaller force can get the job done-just as he though a smaller force would suffice when he granted only 30,000 or so of the 40,000 troops that General Stanley McChrystal requested in 2009. (Obama also added a timeline for their deployment, which the military resisted and which hurt the chances of mission accomplishment even more.) Such minor differences in force size will in no way temper domestic political opposition to the mission, but they can have an impact on the prospects of mission success on the ground.
It’s hard to know why Obama is willing to take a courageous stand for a prolonged U.S. presence in Afghanistan yet refuses to send the right size force. But whatever the president’s reasoning, at least he has not adopted the “zero option” favored by his advisers. The decision to commit the U.S. to Afghanistan post 2014–assuming it holds up–at least gives that war-ravaged country a fighting chance to hold off the Taliban, Haqqanis, and other malignant actors.