By choosing General David Petraeus as new commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama ended the political distraction caused by General Stanley McChrystal's ill-advised Rolling Stone interview. It will be more difficult to end the strategic distraction that is the American involvement in Afghanistan.
We are fast closing in on July 1, 2010, one year before the date President Obama stated would herald the beginning of the decline in the American troop presence in Afghanistan. But to commit to begin troop withdrawals does not tell us much about the rate of withdrawal, the size of any residual force, or the mission of whatever forces remain.
The administration's preference is that U.S. forces should withdraw only at a pace that conditions on the ground justify. This either means that over the next twelve months the effectiveness of Afghan government forces will increase dramatically, both in absolute terms and relative to the Taliban--or that a large number of U.S. forces will remain fighting in Afghanistan for many years to come.
Everything about Afghanistan points to the latter as being more likely. The United States has embarked on a policy of state-building in a country with little tradition of a strong state. Making matters worse is that the Afghan government is riddled with corruption and the Taliban has the benefit of a sanctuary in Pakistan, which remains as much of a problem as it is a partner. Such a policy offers little likelihood of enduring results that would come close to justifying the enormous costs--all at a time the United States faces a looming fiscal crisis and mounting strategic challenges in Iran and North Korea.
The president was wise to act swiftly to replace his theater commander; he should act no less decisively in reviewing the policy. The focus should be on scaling back U.S. military presence, on what more can be done to induce some Taliban leaders and troops to reject working with al-Qaeda and join the Afghan political process--and on what is to be done to those who refuse.