THE SITUATION IN Afghanistan is looking more hopeful than most Americans might think — if they think at all about that ongoing war. Though heavy fighting this spring has shown the Taliban to be a still-formidable force, the group has so far failed to gain significant ground. The Afghan National Army this month will pass a milestone, taking over the lead role in security across the country. Meanwhile, voter registration has begun for a scheduled election next April that should give the country a new, democratically elected president — and perhaps a fresh chance at political stability.
One part of Afghanistan’s transition, however, is lagging: U.S. and NATO plans for continuing military support after the withdrawal of regular combat forces at the end of next year. At a ministerial meeting in Brussels last week, the alliance made only incremental progress toward committing itself to a plan to support the Afghan army beginning in 2015. The ministers approved a “concept of operations” for a non-combat training mission that would be restricted to five locations in the country, with the United States assuming responsibility for the north and east regions. But there was no agreement on troop numbers — largely because the Obama administration has yet to determine the size of the U.S. force.
At the last NATO ministerial discussion on Afghanistan, in February, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told his colleagues the U.S. contingent would number between 8,000 and 12,000 and that a separate counterterrorism strike force would be set up outside the training mission. But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declined to discuss the counterterrorism force in a news briefing, while the commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, refused to repeat Mr. Panetta’s troop numbers, saying it might be six to eight months before he would make a recommendation on the size of the follow-on force.
The vagueness is in part the product of tricky negotiations with the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai, who at times has publicly disparaged a future U.S. troop presence. Then, too, there has been a debate inside the administration about how large a force will be needed; one White House aide suggested early this year that a zero option was possible. In Brussels, Mr. Hagel offered the assurance that “we’re transitioning, not leaving” and that “we intend to be there for the long haul.”
Nevertheless, the uncertainty is problematic. A new report by former Afghanistan commander Gen. John R. Allen, former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy and defense analyst Michael O’Hanlon argues that a specific U.S. commitment to a follow-on force now would “make it clear to Afghans that only their own reluctance, and specifically that of the Karzai government, stands in the way of firming up the partnership.” It would also tell the Taliban and Pakistan that Afghanistan will not be theirs for the taking after 2014, and it would open the way for NATO members and other U.S. allies to firm up their numbers.
The report argues that a decent outcome is still possible in Afghanistan, but that the United States would risk “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” if it accelerates its disengagement or fails to make an adequate commitment of resources after 2014. Mr. Obama needs to be clearer, and soon, about the mission he will support.