President Obama must soon decide how many American soldiers to bring home now. Of course, whatever he decides, he’ll be strongly criticized. If he sends home a significant force, say 10,000, he’ll be criticized by hawks for moving too quickly. On the other hand, if he orders only a token number home, say 2,000, doves will criticize him for moving too slowly. I expect that he will split the difference by sending home a small number of non-essential personnel that will be larger than a token, but still a manageable decrease. In other words, he will initiate the beginning of the end, but in a way that protects the goals of the mission.
Defining those goals has been a vexing challenge for years now. Are we fighting for democracy, a modern nation-state, the end of Osama bin Laden, peace? The trouble with most of these goals is that they lie beyond our control. Besides Osama bin Laden, our hopes for Afghanistan lie with the Afghanis themselves, but not simply with them. Afghanistan is surrounded by nations looking to manipulate it for their own gain. Moreover, Afghanistan has been a war for decades now, which has made civic participation and leadership tenuous at best. The fabric of society–trust and solidarity–has been shot through with violence, fear, and suspicion.
To be sure, social networks and institutions are returning, but also that they have a long, long way to go, as Carlotta Gall makes clear. Indeed, we would be foolish if we didn’t have strong doubts they that will succeed in creating a common culture strong enough to resist the internal and external forces that would tear them apart. Such doubts cause some, like Jim Wallis, to argue for a precipitous withdrawal. The President has shown, however, that he is a patient and determined leader very slow to give up on his goals. He also has a strong inclination for moderating positions. In this case, he appears to recognize that though we cannot guarantee the fate of Afghanistan, we do have the power and responsibility to see that Afghanis get a chance to determine Afghanistan’s future.