PRESIDENT OBAMA laid out two big visions in his address from Bagram airbase on Tuesday night. One was a long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan and its struggle to build and defend a sovereign and democratic government; the other was a promise, for Americans, of an end to “a decade of conflict abroad” after Sept. 11, 2001. Those goals do not necessarily contradict each other. In fact, they both depend on the irreversible defeat of al-Qaeda, which Mr. Obama said “is now within our reach.”
In the case of Afghanistan, however, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Mr. Obama’s pledges — confirmed in a speech that was delivered at 7:30 p.m. Washington time and 4:30 a.m. in Kabul — will be delivered on only if they do not conflict with his determination to “complete our mission and end the war” for Americans by the end of 2014.
The president deserves credit for concluding the “enduring strategic partnership agreement” between Afghanistan and the United States and for traveling to Kabul to sign and explain it personally. Though he made the trip on the anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, this was hardly a home run for his presidential campaign. After all, polls show that the majority of Americans no longer believe the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting — much less continuing for another 2 1
2 years. “We must give Afghanistan the opportunity to stabilize,” Mr. Obama said in answering the question of “why we don’t leave immediately.”
The partnership agreement is in some ways ambitious. It begins by saying that “a strong commitment to protecting and promoting democratic values and human rights is a fundamental aspect of [U.S.-Afghan] long-term partnership and cooperation.” It commits Afghanistan to upholding those rights, including protections for women, in any peace deal that is made with the Taliban. The Obama administration for its part, pledges to designate Afghanistan as a “major non-NATO ally” and to request economic and military funding for it from Congress each year. The military funds would go to support the Afghan army and police as well as a residual force of U.S. trainers and counterterrorism units.
Mr. Obama nevertheless made it clear that there would be firm limits on American support. “Reductions of troops,” he said, “will continue at a steady pace.” And he added that the United States would not try to “build a country in America’s image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban.” It follows that the “future in which war ends” that the president described will not necessarily extend to Afghans. Their desire for “a lasting peace . . . requires a clear timeline to wind down the war,” Mr. Obama insisted. But a timeline won’t end the fighting, except for Americans, and it could encourage the Taliban and its backers to wait out a U.S. and NATO withdrawal rather than accept a peace settlement.
Whether that happens will depend in large part on the size and strength of the American stay-on force, and on funding for the Afghan army, which have yet to be determined. If the “time of war” that began on 9/11 really is to “end in Afghanistan,” as Mr. Obama pledged, that commitment will have to be robust, and enduring.