Winding down the war promises to be even more complicated than getting in. We need to develop small, local counterterrorism forces focused on precluding or containing al Qaeda and to provide them with drones and the training to deal with Taliban cells in Pakistan. Vartan Gregorian recommends we find a way to transform opium production, which is based on poppy cultivation and is currently central to the Afghan economy, into opium for morphine production, which would provide many Afghan farmers with a stable, dependable, and legal income so they could feed their families. Economic progress will be the key to political stability and the "poppies for medicine" idea could transform opium production into a health industry. We have to accept that we have not been able to eradicate the mind-set that gave rise to al Qaeda, a mind-set that is, alas, once again on the rise in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The danger in our retreat is that friends may begin to think that Washington under Obama does not have the experience and the courage to have their backs in a crisis, except rhetorically. This is especially critical in relation to Pakistan, given its nuclear capabilities. Pakistan is just as volatile a menace to peace as it was when Obama took power. It has descended into an almost "hysterical anti-Americanism," as Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, has been recently quoted as saying.
The United States has poured lavish aid into Pakistan while that country remains the chief supporter of perhaps the most violent of Taliban factions, the Haqqani Network. The terrorists and insurgents have always had access to a sanctuary across the border in Pakistan, which cannot be reached by the Afghan military forces. The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is basically ungovernable, so extremists can easily drift back and forth. As long as they enjoy a safe haven to cross that border, the insurgency can never be totally defeated.
The promised 2014 withdrawal is right, but it will diminish our prestige and respect in the region. That is Obama's dilemma. He has been very bold in extending the drone strikes and eliminating known terrorists. Unfortunately, when he inserted a surge of 30,000 troops, he felt he had to speak to two audiences, which were both relieved for different reasons. Americans at home were glad to hear of the commitment to withdraw. The enemy was glad to have a sense of a timetable to know when they would not be facing American firepower. The president announced in his speech from Kabul that we will not be abandoning Southwest Asia after 2014, but U.S. credibility is dubious and suspect. Many Defense Department experts on Afghanistan think our mission will fail.
War is said to be a series of catastrophes that results in victory. Let's hope this one doesn't end in defeat.