The only compelling reason for the United States to remain in Afghanistan after NATO ends its combat role there in 2014 is to contain the threat posed by al-Qaida and Taliban-linked extremists. That's why the security arrangement being negotiated between the Obama administration and the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai should make clear that any remaining U.S. forces will have the latitude to conduct military operations necessary to achieve the mission. Afghan leaders need to decide whether they are more interested in popularity or peace, and Washington should be realistic about the limits of American power.
The outline of a security pact may not come before today, as thousands of Afghan officials and tribal elders begin a five-day meeting to debate whether U.S. forces should remain after NATO ends its combat mission at the end of 2014. The two sides resolved many of the thorniest issues by Wednesday, from continued U.S. support for Afghan security to the U.S. insistence on immunity for American troops. Two major issues remain: the conditions under which American forces may raid Afghan homes, and the request by Karzai's government for Washington to apologize for Afghans who were hurt by NATO's past military mistakes.
The request for an apology is galling given Karzai's history as an unreliable partner and the sacrifice America and its allies have made in 12 years of war. But that pales compared to the larger stakes in prescribing the mission and rules of engagement for any remaining U.S. forces. While the agreement contemplates the United States advising and training Afghan troops, the real security value for America in remaining is in conducting counterterrorism operations. That inevitably requires an aggressive approach. Afghans are still not prepared to lead on intelligence-gathering or counterterror raids. Barring the U.S. special forces from carrying out their capabilities would effectively turn American bases into glorified boot camps.
There is room within this week's assembly to recognize Afghan national pride but also to lay out an effective role for an allied military force. The United States should be clear that without Afghan cooperation, neither side can achieve their common interest in weakening the insurgency. Afghan leaders need to recognize the nature of this war requires taking the fight to the villages. If the Afghans won't and the United States can't, what's the point of staying past 2014 at all?
Afghan leaders can turn these negotiations around by using the assembly to show that the prospects for a strong and functioning central government are real. That would go a long way toward easing concerns in both countries about an open-ended military commitment. We've already done that in Afghanistan for too long, at too high a price.