President Obama has been of two minds toward Afghanistan since the outset of his presidency. In December 2009, en route to tripling the U.S. military presence there, he declared that U.S. military forces would begin to withdraw from that country in eighteen months. Now, two-and-a-half years later, he stated that U.S. military forces would continue to leave Afghanistan but that American soldiers would remain in the country until at least 2024.
The announcement of the U.S.-Afghan "Strategic Partnership Agreement" raises at least as many questions as it answers.
How many U.S. troops will remain in country after 2014 and what will be their precise role? What will be the ultimate scale of Afghan army and police forces? How much will all this cost, and what will be the U.S. share? And what is the extent of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan if, as is all too possible, this mix of Afghan and U.S. effort is not enough in the face of Taliban ruthlessness, Pakistani provision of a sanctuary for the Taliban, and Afghan corruption and divisions?
All of which takes us to the second rationale for the announced policy: to "finish the job we started in Afghanistan and end this war responsibly." But past sacrifice is a poor justification for continued sacrifice unless it is warranted. The truth is that while the United States still has interests in Afghanistan, none of them, other than opposing al-Qaeda, rises to the level of vital. And this vital interest can be addressed with a modest commitment of troops and dollars.
This column was originally published Wednesday by the Council on Foreign Relations.