Gen. Nicholson's task in Afghanistan

The most interesting revelation during the confirmation hearings of Army Lt. Gen. John Nicholson, who was nominated as the next commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was the revelation by Sen. Mark KirkMark KirkGOP senator defends funding Planned Parenthood Why Qatar Is a problem for Washington Taking the easy layup: Why brain cancer patients depend on it MORE (R-Ill.) that Nicholson's great-great-uncle was British Lt. Gen. John Nicholson, who had participated in the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839 to 1842) and been held captive in Ghazni.

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It was also interesting that Kirk himself had served as a reservist under Nicholson in Afghanistan. It is a sign of how familiar Afghanistan has become to America's leadership. With the extension of our troop presence past 2016, it will continue being familiar to Americans for several years longer.

A number of senators encouraged Nicholson to provide the Senate, following his initial 90-day assessment, with his objective and nonpolitical assessment of how many troops are needed to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan, which Nicholson said were to "defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates, contribute to regional and international peace and stability, and enhance the ability of Afghanistan to deter threats against its sovereignty, security and territorial integrity."

For the first time in several years, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is now being articulated in terms of years of engagement, rather than a countdown to withdrawal. There was a sense of relief that the lifting of President Obama's self-imposed withdrawal deadline had created breathing room for U.S. strategists, greater confidence for Afghan political actors (for whom the withdrawal of U.S. support was a political death sentence) and an opportunity to refocus on a conditions-based withdrawal rather than meeting a timeline that ignored — and arguably contributed to — depressing realities on the ground.

Nobody wants to stay in Afghanistan forever, but it is counterproductive to leave under current circumstances. The Taliban remain on the offensive, while a number of non-Taliban extremist groups, including a branch of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have been flushed into Afghanistan in the past two years.

Long before he became president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani rebutted the complaint that his country had become the site of America's longest war with the observation that this was not a 10-year war, but 10 one-year wars. That short-term perspective has led to a long-term presence that has underachieved against our stated objectives.

The current commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Campbell, faced a more skeptical line of questioning following his briefing on Feb. 2 to the House Armed Services Committee. Members legitimately asked how the U.S. would be able to achieve its objectives now, with 10,000 troops, compared to the surge, when the U.S. had around 100,000 troops. This is a compelling question, especially given the noticeable deterioration of security, the fragmentation of extremist groups, and the fragile and still-corrupt Afghan government.

If there is an answer, it is that troop numbers have never been the correct metric to assess our "commitment" to achieving our objectives. No matter how many troops we've had in Afghanistan, they have always been on their way out — either through a "transition" to Afghan leadership, as in the surge period between 2009 and 2014, or working toward a full withdrawal, as was the case between May 2014 and last November, when the Obama administration changed its policy to extend the U.S. presence indefinitely.

The paradox that needs to be explained to the American people and even to Congress is that the less we explicitly state deadlines, the sooner we will be able to leave Afghanistan. Among the arguments for remaining in the country is that our backing of the current government makes it more likely that the Taliban will accept a negotiated political solution, rather than wait us out, as they have been doing.

The critics of this policy of seemingly infinite extension are correct to be skeptical. They are hearing the same arguments to justify expansion as before, arguments that seem, in retrospect, to have been empty: the need to give the government more time, the fighting ability of the Afghan security forces, the vital importance of Afghanistan to America's national security. The issue is not that the policy is without flaws, but that — in part because of earlier failures — there are no real alternatives. Without our support, the Afghan government will collapse. With that collapse, the numerous extremist groups will have a ready-made safe haven as they did before 9/11. The civilian population will face a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe that can barely be imagined.

Nicholson's task is unenviable. The first test will be the extent to which his 90-day review recognizes the severe complexities of the situation and prioritizes his objectives. He may need to commune with the ghost of his famed ancestor, who is apparently still remembered and respected by Afghans. A casual reading of that war will reveal that the withdrawal of British forces then did not go well.

Smith is the director of the United States Institute of Peace's Afghanistan and Central Asia program.