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Op-Ed

Defining ‘Success’ in Afghanistan

Michael E. O’Hanlon

President Obama’s expected announcement Tuesday that the United States will leave 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 is, on balance, mixed news.

The number is good. That many U.S. troops would allow us to keep more than half a dozen strategically located bases, with operational capacity to go along with the half-dozen Afghan military corps (with advisers in headquarters). For both counterterrorism and peacekeeping purposes, it would be helpful to have drones, airplanes, and other assets near the general regions of Kandahar, Helmand and part of the east.

Downsizing further after 2014 is also logical. Afghan forces are a work in progress. They won’t need the same amount of help in two years that they’ll need a year from now.

That said, it would be a mistake to schedule a complete U.S. withdrawal, and a complete end to all cooperation with Afghan forces, for 2016 or any other specific year. Why prevent a future U.S. president from sustaining a small mission if that seems advisable? Why is ending all cooperation with Afghanistan the ultimate criterion, apparently, for declaring “success”? That’s not the way the U.S. has handled military collaboration with Germany, Britain, Korea, Japan and other historical allies—and we have a pretty good track record of success with them. Where is the virtue in declaring now that the follow-on mission will last only two years? Why wouldn’t keeping the American people safe be the fundamental emphasis, as opposed to being able to say that we’ve totally departed?

If in 2016 there is the possibility of yet another, smaller mission—based on an assessment done closer to that time—then fine, no harm done. But I’m not sure that’s the presumption here.

This article originally appeared in
The Wall Street Journal
.