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Editorial

Stick to the Afghanistan deadline

The Obama administration appears to be hedging on its troop withdrawal timeline. That's a mistake.

January 16, 2011

Vice President Joe Biden, contradicting his previous assertion that U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan in 2014 "come hell or high water," said during a visit to Afghanistan last week that the United States might maintain a presence there beyond that date. It's the latest indication that the Obama administration is moving the goalpost for U.S. withdrawal. With a rising American death toll — 499 last year — this continual prolonging of the war is unconscionable.

In 2009, when he announced his decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, President Obama said that the withdrawal of U.S. forces would begin in July of this year. But it is increasingly doubtful that the initial withdrawal will be a significant one. The administration's review of policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan last month said that the July withdrawal would be "responsible" and "conditions-based." Meanwhile, NATO and the United States, in deference to President Hamid Karzai, have set 2014 as the deadline for turning over all security responsibilities in Afghanistan. Yet even that deadline, as Biden's remarks indicated, is a soft one. The administration's review refers to "NATO's enduring commitment beyond 2014."

The shifting timeline is extremely distressing. When Obama sent the 30,000 additional troops — raising the force level to almost 100,000 — the expectation was that the buildup would produce a meaningful improvement in the effort to rout the Taliban and Al Qaeda and help establish a more stable government in Kabul.

But by the administration's own testimony, achievement of those goals is still in question. The December review concludes that the troop buildup "has reduced overall Taliban influence" but acknowledges that "these gains remain fragile and reversible." (It's equally cautious in claiming success for efforts in Pakistan to dismantle Al Qaeda, warning that defeating the terrorist group "will require the sustained denial of the group's safe haven in the tribal areas of western Pakistan.")

One doesn't have to look far for an explanation for the limited progress. The weak Karzai government continues to lose support among the Afghan people, partly because of rampant corruption. Afghan security forces remain unequal to subduing a resurgent Taliban.

Pakistan, meanwhile, continues to play a double game, assisting the United States in combating extremist groups but only up to a point. Some in the government's security apparatus seem to consider militants within Pakistan's borders a strategic asset.

After nine years of American military involvement in Afghanistan, these are disappointing returns on an enormous investment of lives and dollars. The Times has been reluctant to call for an immediate or even a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan, and we recognize that the president's advisors — from Petraeus on down — have spent considerable time thinking about how to withdraw without jeopardizing painfully achieved gains.

Still, we worry that the administration's more ambitious goals — a credible government in Afghanistan, the permanent defeat of the Taliban — may prove elusive even after three more years of military involvement, let alone a presence beyond that. We hope that isn't the case, but regardless of what happens, the United States and NATO should take their own deadlines seriously. That means a significant withdrawal this year and an unambiguous completion of the mission in 2014. Biden was right the first time.

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