The Obama administration's review of its Afghan war strategy offers a cautiously optimistic assessment that foresees the end of U.S. military involvement, though later rather than sooner.
President Obama and his key advisers maintain that the U.S. can begin bringing troops home next summer although withdrawals will begin slowly and be contingent on conditions on the ground. Forces are expected to remain at least through 2014.
Bolstered by the surge of 30,000 more troops and the sharper counterinsurgency strategy honed by Gen. David Petraeus, the military effort shows progress in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban's stronghold, although the insurgency remains potent elsewhere. The Afghan army has exceeded growth targets, engendering hope that it can assume the lead as U.S. and NATO forces withdraw.
The report says little about the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, but Obama said the Afghans "must build their nation."
Counterterrorism operations, including unmanned drone attacks, have been effective in targeting the Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives in border areas near Pakistan, but the Pakistanis' reluctance to deny the insurgents safe haven remains a major stumbling block. While the administration has made progress in forging a sturdier relationship with Pakistan, it remains a wobbly ally, intent on keeping a shadowy hand in Afghanistan through ties with the Taliban and obsessed with its traditional rival, India.
Convincing the Pakistanis of the value of a long-term regional solution, buttressed by strong ties to the United States, is crucial to achieving stability in the area and degrading the threat of militant Islamic extremism.
Although Obama is giving himself much wiggle room on ending U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, he will be increasingly constrained by the American public's growing impatience with the nation's longest war.