Obama's Right Reversal on Afghanistan

The sun never sets for Americans in Afghanistan.

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Last May, President Barack Obama promised that 2014 would be “the year we conclude our combat mission in Afghanistan.” Now, in an apparent reversal, he's announced an expanded and ongoing role for U.S. troops.

Much as the White House may deny it, the policy has changed -- and that's good. Conditions on the ground required it. Making a success of this new strategy, however, is another matter. Sadly, the outcome will be decided more by decisions made in Kabul than in Washington.

Leaving Afghanistan

Americans were supposed to be in a merely “advisory role” starting next year. Now, according to the new authorization, military commanders can use air and ground forces not only to protect U.S. trainers and advisers and to conduct counterterrorist operations against al-Qaeda and other “transnational” groups, as planned, but also to support Afghan forces. This new last element is not consistent with what Obama said before.

Never mind: The adjustment makes sense, because three big things have changed.

First, conditions in Afghanistan have gotten worse. This week’s suicide bombing at a volleyball match, killing 57 and wounding more than 55, was 2014's deadliest attack. In the first six months of this year, according to the United Nations, civilian casualties were 24 percent higher than during the same period last year. The Taliban has increased the tempo and size of its attacks, and controls more territory. Afghanistan’s security forces, which now bear the brunt, are suffering severe losses.

Second, since taking office in September, President Ashraf Ghani has proved a much more forthcoming and reliable partner for U.S. and coalition forces than his mercurial predecessor, Hamid Karzai. Afghanistan’s new government has recently approved a resumption of night raids by special forces, for instance -- an effective but controversial tactic that Karzai had banned.

Third, the bloody gains of Islamic State in Iraq have raised the prospect of chaos enveloping Afghanistan after the coalition’s combat mission ends in 2014 and its eventual complete withdrawal in 2016. Granted, Afghanistan is not Iraq. It differs in its geography, history, demography, economy and willingness to deal with the U.S. and its allies. So fears of Islamic State setting up shop in Afghanistan, for now at least, look overblown. Still, the stakes for U.S. policy in Afghanistan just got higher.

All this justifies Obama’s change of course -- but doesn't change certain awkward facts. After more than a decade of fighting, it's clear that military force, within the bounds of what's feasible, won't bring the conflict to an end. The country doesn't have, and may never have, security forces capable of decisively defeating the Taliban: Current troop levels already cost several times total tax revenue, and levels of training, readiness and retention are poor.

Meeting the Taliban's challenge demands a political as well as a military response. Greater unity and progress in Kabul are essential. As Obama rightly noted during the squabbles after Afghanistan's presidential election, delaying the withdrawal of U.S. troops would make no difference unless Afghans were willing to pull together. Indeed, the Taliban exploited this summer's political vacuum to make fresh territorial gains.

Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, are yoked together in an awkward unity government, but still haven't agreed on a division of responsibilities or decided on a cabinet. Making the unity government work will also require revisions to the constitution. And the country's deeply flawed voting procedures need to be fixed before parliamentary elections scheduled for next spring.

Keeping U.S. boots on the ground can buy some time, but it's an investment with diminishing returns. In the end, it will be for nothing unless Afghanistan's leaders show more commitment to healing their country's political divisions.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.