February 2, 2012

IT’S BECOMING increasingly difficult to reconcile the Obama administration’s military and diplomatic initiatives on Afghanistan. Last month, the State Department unveiled a “fight and talk” strategy that could involve the transfer of senior Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar. The aim, officials said, was to induce Taliban leaders to accept what they have repeatedly rejected: talks with the Afghan government and a peace settlement based on the current Afghan constitution, including its protections for women.

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta floated an entirely different plan: an end to most U.S. and NATO combat operations in Afghanistan by the second half of 2013, a year earlier than expected, and a substantial cut in the previously planned size of the Afghan armed forces. So much for “fight.” Though Mr. Panetta didn’t say so, this strategy implies another big U.S. troop reduction in 2013, beyond the pullout of about one-third of troops already planned for this year. U.S. commanders have lobbied to keep the troop strength steady from this coming autumn until the end of 2014 — the current endpoint for the NATO military commitment.

The new timetable may sound good to voters when Mr. Obama touts it on the presidential campaign trail. But how will the Taliban, and its backers in Pakistan, interpret it? Before negotiations even begin, the administration has unilaterally and radically reduced the opposing force the Taliban can expect to face 18 months from now. Will Taliban leader Mohammad Omar have reason to make significant concessions between now and then? More likely, the extremist Islamic movement and an increasingly hostile Pakistani military establishment will conclude that the United States is desperate to get its troops out of Afghanistan, as quickly as possible — whether or not the Afghan government and constitution survive.

Administration officials argue that the plan for NATO to remain in Afghanistan until the end of 2014 hasn’t changed — and that negotiations are underway with the Afghan government for a U.S. commitment of trainers and advisers well past that date. In theory, a robust U.S. stay-on force — say, of 20,000 troops, with air support — could ensure against a Taliban return to power in Kabul and force its leaders to make concessions.

But the total U.S. pullout from Iraq can’t have inspired much confidence in Kabul about U.S. steadfastness. And the trend of administration policy is toward a much smaller effort in Afghanistan. Since the death of Osama bin Laden in a Special Forces raid last May, administration strategy has veered sharply toward the concept that narrowly defined U.S. interests, such as keeping al-Qaeda in check, can be accomplished through the use of Special Forces and drones while ground troops are withdrawn.

In our view that theory is badly mistaken. A rapid U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan will most likely lead to a renewed civil war in which the Taliban could again gain the upper hand. That would endanger U.S. interests throughout the region — starting with a nuclear-armed Pakistan — and mean an unforgivable breach of faith with the Afghan women and men the United States promised to enfranchise and defend.

But if President Obama has decided to pursue that course, there’s an inevitable next question. If the goal of a stable and democratic Afghanistan is to be subordinated — if timetables are to be accelerated, regardless of conditions — why should U.S. ground troops fight and die this year?