President Barack Obama needs to seriously rethink what America can hope to achieve by remaining in Afghanistan as scheduled for two more, full years. The latest assessment by the Pentagon continues to paint a grim outlook on the security situation, on the prospects for a strong, central government and on Kabul's ability to chart a new course on the economy, human and civil rights and democratic pluralism. American troops and their families, and this nation's treasury and global standing, should not be left in a holding pattern.
The Pentagon reported that insurgent attacks had increased in the six-month period ending in October as compared to last year. There were more attacks on high-profile targets and more civilian casualties, and violence was higher than it was before the surge of American forces two years ago. While Afghan forces were taking the lead in the vast majority of security operations, most were routine patrols, and only one of the Afghan National Army's 23 brigades was able to operate on its own without air or other military support from U.S. or NATO forces.
The assessment is the 10th since Congress first required the biannual reports in 2008, and it somewhat mirrors the frustrating security and political problems that have marred this operation from the start. Despite the coalition's military gains, the Taliban-inspired fighters remain a "resilient insurgency," just as they were described in the first Pentagon report four years ago. What exists of the Afghan central government is corrupt and weak; the security forces lack discipline and unity; the economy remains hostage to swings in food and fuel prices and high inflation; and there is little capacity in schools and the civil structure to mold Afghan youths into middle-class professionals.
So the obvious question becomes: Is this an exercise in nation-building or an exercise in dreaming? Taliban insurgents still operate with impunity, with Pakistani help. Inside attacks on coalition forces by Afghan troops have spiked, to 37 so far this year from two in 2007. The Afghan government still cannot provide decent security or basic public services outside the population centers. This has created a state-within-a-state mentality that has sapped public confidence in the central government. With half the population underemployed, what national unity is there on the horizon after more than a decade of war?
These are the realities facing Obama as he looks to fashion the withdrawal of America's 68,000 remaining troops. Americans need to hear — and should have heard in this year's presidential campaign — how maintaining our forces there for two more years does anything but temporarily squeeze an insurgency that the Pentagon admits is adaptive and has "significant regenerative capacity."
The Afghan people need to be responsible not only for their own security but for their own expectations. Obama should ensure the withdrawal timetable is aimed more at the first elusive goal than the second.