The Obama administration has completed its third review in two years of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. It argues the current approach is making progress, with success defined as building up Afghan national army and police forces until they can hold their own against a Taliban that is being weakened by ongoing combat. Some officials also believe that several more years of military pressure will persuade many Taliban fighters to switch sides rather than fight.
There are good reasons to be skeptical. While the situation on the ground in Afghanistan should improve in areas where U.S. military forces are operating in strength, the gains are likely to fade in the wake of their departure. The inherent weakness of central government institutions in Afghanistan, the tenacity of the Taliban and their ties to Afghanistan's many Pashtuns, and the reality that the Taliban will continue to enjoy a sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan all work against what we seek to achieve.
It is possible that doubters will be proven wrong. But the more fundamental problem with the policy depends less on its prospects than its costs and benefits. What the United States is doing in Afghanistan is not justified even if the policy succeeds.
The costs of the policy are considerable. There are just under 100,000 U.S. troops in the country. This year alone nearly 500 American soldiers have lost their lives. Ten times that many suffered casualties. It is costing U.S. taxpayers between $100 billion and $125 billion a year. The commitment is tying down a significant portion of military and intelligence assets, and it is absorbing significant time and energy of U.S. officials in Washington and abroad.
Arrayed against these costs are the stakes. It is essential that Afghanistan not again become a staging ground for terrorist attacks against the U.S., but that goal was largely achieved before the Obama administration tripled force levels. Should the Taliban re-establish cooperation with al Qaeda and groups like it, the U.S. could respond with a counterterrorist package of drones, special forces and training of local forces, much as it is does in Yemen and Somalia.
The second interest at stake is Pakistan. Some argue that we must stabilize Afghanistan lest it become a staging ground for undermining its more important neighbor, one that hosts the world's most dangerous terrorists and possesses more than 100 nuclear weapons. This defies logic. Pakistan is providing sanctuary and support to the Afghan Taliban who have not demonstrated an agenda to destabilize Pakistan. Why should we be more worried than the Pakistanis themselves?
Viewing Afghanistan as holding the key to Pakistan shows a misunderstanding of Pakistan. It is, to be sure, a weak state. But the threats to it are mostly internal and the result of deep divisions within the society and decades of poor governance. If Pakistan ever fails, it will not be because of terrorists coming across its western border.
So what should U.S. policy be? Total withdrawal from Afghanistan is not the answer, as there is an enduring U.S. interest in combating any terrorists who have global reach. But the U.S. effort there should be sharply reduced.
The next policy review, upcoming this spring, should call for reducing U.S. forces to 30,000 by mid-2012. That's the number that were there when President Obama took office. The U.S. should channel aid to provincial leaders as well as to (and through) the government in Kabul. The U.S. should continue to train and arm friendly government and regional soldiers, but U.S. combat operations should become increasingly rare.
There is a good chance that the Taliban would make significant inroads in the south and east of the country under such a strategy—although there is a good chance they will make inroads regardless. What matters most is that they not allow al Qaeda and groups like it back in, and that they are attacked from the air and by special forces if they do.
The U.S. should continue to assist the Pakistani government and press it to end support for the Afghan Taliban and all terrorist groups. But Washington should do so without illusions. Pakistan is unlikely to become a full partner. It will continue to see these groups and Afghan territory as part of a larger policy to confront arch-rival India. Only a turnabout in Pakistan's relations with its larger neighbor would alter this strategic outlook. Alas, such a change is not in the offing.
To justify adopting a more narrow policy toward Afghanistan this spring, President Obama would need to cite several factors. First, the U.S. inability to eliminate the sanctuaries in Pakistan. Second, successful counterinsurgency depends on having a solid local partner. Two years of sustained investment and multiple but fraudulent elections suggest that Afghanistan's central government will not reach the point where it is considered effective or legitimate by the bulk of its own people. All this argues for adopting a policy of counterterrorism rather than state-building.
There are also broader reasons to recast policy. The greatest threat to U.S. national security stems from our own fiscal crisis. Afghanistan is a significant contributor to this situation and could play an important role in reducing it. A savings of $75 billion a year could help finance much-needed military modernization and reduce the deficit.
Another factor is the increased possibility of a conflict with a reckless North Korea and the continued possibility of a confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program. U.S. military forces must be freed up to contend with these issues. The perception that we are tied down in Afghanistan makes it more difficult to threaten North Korea or Iran credibly—and makes it more difficult to muster the forces to deal with either if necessary.
Ultimately Afghanistan is a strategic distraction. U.S. interests there are limited. So, too, are the resources available for national security. It is not surprising that the commander in the field, Gen. David Petraeus, is calling for committing greater resources to the theater. But it is the commander-in-chief's responsibility to take into account the nation's capacity to meet all of its challenges, national and international. It is for this reason that the perspectives of Gen. Petraeus and President Obama must necessarily diverge.
Mr. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars" (Simon & Schuster, 2009).
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