PRESIDENT OBAMA returned in his State of the Union address to a familiar slogan: The war in Afghanistan “is finally coming to an end.” That, of course, is not true: As 29 million Afghans could testify, there is no end to the conflict in sight. Mr. Obama equates the end of the war with the end of U.S. combat operations. “Together with our allies,” he told Congress on Tuesday, “we will complete our mission there by the end of this year.”
Even that is not true — at least, not according to the president’s announced plan. Mr. Obama reiterated his commitment to leave behind U.S. trainers and logistical support to assist the Afghan army, as well as a counterterrorism force to “pursue any remnants of al-Qaeda” — which presumably would involve military action. Though the president didn’t specify the size of the force, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., has reportedly recommended that it total 10,000 troops, complemented by several thousand more from NATO allies.
The continuing mission has overwhelming logic in its favor, both for Afghanistan and for the United States. Both have a vital interest in preserving the hard-won gains of the past dozen years — from the construction of a fledgling democracy to the education of a generation of girls. Though al-Qaeda has been driven from Afghanistan, it would likely return to the country in company with Taliban allies in the absence of a U.S. deterrent. Without U.S. troops and bases in Afghanistan, the United States also would be ill-placed to mount operations against terrorist targets in Pakistan.
Not surprisingly, polls show that Afghans broadly support a continuing U.S. mission, as do most members of President Hamid Karzai’s cabinet, most of the U.S. national security establishment and almost all NATO governments. But the project is in serious danger because two crucial actors are falling short: Mr. Karzai and Mr. Obama.
Mr. Karzai’s counterproductive behavior has been getting the brunt of attention in Washington. His wild allegations about U.S. military misconduct are deeply offensive, but worse is his refusal to sign the bilateral security agreement he negotiated with the Obama administration and presented to a national assembly of notables for endorsement. Without the agreement, which sets the legal basis for a continued U.S. presence, the United States would be forced into a full withdrawal.
The administration has the option of sidestepping Mr. Karzai, who is due to be replaced in a presidential election scheduled for April. It could plan for a continued presence and even announce its dimensions with the expectation that the new president would sign on; virtually all of the candidates have expressed support. It could buy time with a brief extension of the existing military agreement. Instead, Mr. Obama has played into Mr. Karzai’s hands by setting deadlines for his signature and hinting that he will embrace a “zero option” if the matter is not soon settled.
The president is also communicating the wrong message to Americans with speeches proclaiming “the end of America’s longest war.” If a continued U.S. mission is to be supported by the public and funded by Congress — which just slashed this year’s Afghanistan funding — Mr. Obama must make the case why it is in the national interest for troops to remain. That he does virtually the opposite makes him complicit with Mr. Karzai in undermining a major national security interest.