Protecting the Gains in Afghanistan

By most U.S. media accounts, Afghanistan is at best a largely forgotten cause; at worst, lost. Even apart from the recent attacks on Kabul and Taliban gains, costs have been higher and accomplishments less solid than they should have been.

But measured against core standards, the mission is far from a failure. Two imperative goals have been preventing future extremist attacks against the West from Afghan soil and giving Afghans a solid stake in their future so they will not turn again to the Taliban or be vulnerable to a takeover. By both metrics, success is much closer than failure–that is, if we stay the course and avoid a complete departure in two years, as President Barack Obama and the international community intend.

Here is why those plans for premature departure should be revised.

Among the successes achieved since 2001:

*Life expectancy had increased to 61 years in 2012 from 51 years in 2001.

*Infant mortality had declined, in 2012, to 72 deaths before age 1 per 1,000 live births, from 93 deaths in 2001.

*As of 2014, 50% of Afghans had access to basic health care.

*Fifty-six percent of the rural population had access to clean water in 2012, up from 44% in 2008.

*Primary school enrollment (including overage, underage, and repeating students) is up severalfold from 21% in 2001.

But all of these gains are not the main point. Less easily quantifiable, yet even more important, is the shift in Afghans’ view of government. Many are no longer willing to perceive central government as little more than an abstract irritation. There is an expectation, even in outlying areas, that government must respond to the interests of all Afghans and deliver a modicum of services to justify its presence and the demands made of citizens. For the most part, the Taliban are widely disdained.

Islamic State extremists have been on the march in Iraq and Syria, and bombing plots from Yemen in recent years have produced major near-misses in the U.S. homeland, but Afghanistan has not produced another major attack. To the contrary, it has provided bases that have helped coalition forces significantly diminish the al-Qaeda threat in Pakistan.

The greatest threat to Afghan gains is political uncertainty. Last year’s presidential election process was flawed–involving an initial vote in April, a runoff in June, and lengthy negotiations before, finally, a new president in September. Yet Afghans, aided by Secretary of State John Kerry and United Nations Special Representative Ján Kubiš, found their way to a power-sharing compromise. President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah struggle to form a cabinet, but fears of all-out ethnic competition or civil war have ebbed.

While the Taliban have taken back some rural areas, and have killed about 10,000 Afghan soldiers and police over the past two years, they are not winning. Afghan cities and major roads are in government hands, and last year’s voter turnout shows that Afghans overwhelmingly support their new national project. Recruits continue to join the army and police. The Afghan people remain 90% opposed to the Taliban, the Brookings Institution’s Afghanistan index has found.

U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan has declined 90% from peak levels. With Afghan security forces exceeding 350,000 troops, the real question is deciding how fast and to what extent to further downsize. For Afghan security, regional stability, and continued access to bases on Afghan territory that allow us to suppress al-Qaeda in Pakistan, it is time to stop thinking in terms of an exit—and start thinking about an enduring, if limited, security partnership. This may mean a few thousand troops and a couple of billion dollars a year in aid for a sustained period. But whatever that cost, it is a much smaller price than the U.S. and international community have paid in recent years–and a far lower price than another 9/11.

This opinion originally appeared at Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire.