However, domestic political pressures are building for President Barack Obama to speed up his plans to get out of Afghanistan. In December 2009, when Obama announced his plans to send in an extra 30,000 troops (on top of the 24,000 he added the previous March), he also said that he would begin to withdraw some of them by July 2011. (More recently, NATO announced that all troops would come out by the end of 2014.) With the magic date just two months away, the debate has begun over just how many U.S. troops—out of the current 100,000—Obama should withdraw and how many of those should be combat troops. Many are arguing that Obama should use the killing of Osama as an excuse (as Sen. George Aiken once proposed that President Lyndon Johnson do in the early years of the Vietnam War) to "declare victory and get out."
It must be tempting. The war's costs, in dollars and lives, are exorbitant. Despite the tactical victories that Gen. David Petraeus is racking up, the broader counterinsurgency strategy—which involves "winning hearts and minds" in order to get the Afghan people to support their government—doesn't seem to be working, not least because the Afghan government is too corrupt or incompetent to earn their trust. (For the latest on this, see Jon Lee Anderson's depressing report in the May 11 New Yorker.)
But if it matters to U.S. interests how the war ends—whither Afghanistan and its effects on the broader region—then it's a bad idea simply to walk away. And it's fairly clear that the outcome does matter to U.S. interests.
This doesn't mean we should necessarily "stay the course." We are getting out, if not in two months then (officially) in three years. All the players—the Afghan government, the Taliban, the Pakistanis, the Afghan people—are already behaving in anticipation of our departure. So we should, first of all, recognize that fact and make the most of it.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai must be extremely nervous that Obama will do what many in Congress, and some in the White House, are hoping—cite Bin Laden's death as an excuse to go home. So we should exploit this situation, use it as leverage to get Karzai to step up reforms, especially to take meaningful steps toward ending corruption. As every U.S. leader has publicly stated, from Obama on down to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the entire military chain of command, even the most effective military campaign will have little effect if the Afghan people regard their government as illegitimate.
At the same time, commanders and diplomats should exploit whatever fissures Bin Laden's death might have opened up—not just between the various Taliban factions but, more, between the insurgent commanders, who tend to lounge in the shelters of Pakistan, and the foot soldiers bleeding on the battlefields of Afghanistan. It's unclear at this point whether a diplomatic settlement is possible, or what it would look like—but it's time to start seriously crafting its foundations.
It's also time for a serious diplomatic push outside Afghan borders. Early in his presidency, Obama recognized that this problem was regional in nature—and that the solution would have to be, too. The late Richard Holbrooke coined the term "AfPak," to suggest its scope, but stopped short of AfPakInd, which captures things more fully. The leaders of India were the obstacle here, insisting that they be left out of any regional package, wanting to be dealt with individually, on their own terms, as the world's largest, and one of its fastest-growing, democracies. They had a point, but it's time to bunch the three countries together anyway, at least in a security forum, and perhaps to include Russia, China, and other interested parties as well. This is difficult, maybe close to impossible. But without dealing with this dimension, the problem won't be solved.
Which brings us to the issue that Bin Laden's death has revived as a debatable topic: the question of U.S. troops. The fact is that the United States needs leverage in order to apply the necessary pressure (to get Karzai moving on reform, the Pakistanis and Indians to get moving on détente, and the other regional and global powers to offer security guarantees, economic incentives, or whatever a peaceful arrangement requires)—and we will have no leverage if everyone thinks we're getting out quickly.
It's a delicate matter: holding out the possibility of a rapid pullout, to exert leverage on some fronts—while demonstrating a continued presence, and keeping up the military pressure, to exert leverage on other fronts. Maybe Obama's new national-security team—especially Ryan Crocker, the incoming ambassador in Kabul—can juggle all these swords. Maybe it's just not possible.
There are two alternatives to this approach: keep doing what we've been doing and stay there forever while the regional politics continue to stagnate—or just get out and watch it all crumble.
This is what the real debate should be about: what we want Afghanistan and its surroundings to look like in, say, five years—and how best to make that so. Anything else is a distracting cop-out.