President Barack Obama will meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Washington on Friday to discuss America's involvement in his country after NATO forces leave as scheduled at the end of 2014. But before Obama debates troop levels with Karzai or even the Pentagon, he needs to explain to the American public what an extended military mission could hope to achieve. The West has a clear security interest in keeping the Taliban from retaking power and in denying al-Qaida safe haven. But Washington also needs to be realistic about its expectations — and more willing going forward to put America's interests first.
Karzai's visit comes as Obama is considering how quickly to withdraw the 66,000 remaining U.S. troops and whether to leave behind a force of up to 9,000 to conduct counterterror operations and train the Afghan security services. The Pentagon has bumped down an initial plan that proposed a range of forces up to 15,000 strong. The three new options would leave 3,000, 6,000 or 9,000 U.S. troops in the country after 2014, assuming the United States and Afghanistan come to an agreement over the terms of a continuing military presence. Given Karzai's unpredictable nature, the fluid state of Afghan politics and the likely insistence by the United States on some form of immunity for American troops who remain, an agreement for a residual force is far from certain.
But focusing on troop levels is premature. The president should first lay out America's concrete objectives after 2014. Keeping al-Qaida and the Taliban at bay is fine as a goal. But the Afghan government cannot do it; only one of that country's 23 combat brigades can operate on its own without NATO's assistance. And this lack of readiness comes not only after NATO built the Afghan security forces but trained and equipped them for years. Why should the United States believe that the Afghans can achieve in the next 23 months what they have failed to accomplish in more than a decade? And if the Afghans won't rise to the job now, why would they when NATO diminishes its security presence?
The Obama administration has a responsibility to provide any residual force with the troop levels it needs to defend itself and to promote America's long-term interests. That makes it all the more vital for the president to articulate exactly what those interests and expectations are before he extends the military mission. And he needs to make one point abundantly clear to the post-Karzai leadership in the run-up to next year's presidential race: The Afghan people must take responsibility not only for their own security, but for what unfolds inside their country.
Karzai needs to realize that his strategy of exploiting the fears of abandonment in Afghanistan has virtually run its course. The incompetence and corruption of the Afghan central government was a driving force in bringing this decade-old mission to a close, and that fact should shape any dialogue over extending it. Obama should figure out what realistically the United States could gain by remaining, and only then consider what forces might be needed for any military involvement.