Obama's Afghan strategy -- including a large troop surge and expanded training and mentoring of Afghan forces -- is more successful than some credit. In the south -- the Taliban homeland -- insurgents have been deprived of sanctuaries and weapons caches. Violence in that region was down by a third in 2011 compared to the previous year. About 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police are now deployed across the country. More than half of American military forces engage in joint operations with their Afghan counterparts. While conditions in Afghanistan's north and west have deteriorated during the last few years -- complicating the work of relief organizations -- the overall levels of violence are not severe. The east, in contrast, has serious and growing challenges.
Gains in Afghanistan are not as dramatic as those in Iraq circa 2008. But they provide a reasonable hope that security responsibilities can be gradually shifted to Afghan forces by 2014, with American troops playing a supportive (but still substantial) role.
The Obama administration has earned some criticism. It has an alarming tendency to undermine its own strategy. Early on, administration officials engaged in the concerted alienation of Karzai, who became convinced that American complaints about corruption were really attempts to undercut him. Influence and leverage were squandered. More recently, Obama's decision to quicken the pace of troop withdrawal -- against the advice of his commanders -- has damaged military prospects, particularly in the east. It is difficult to see how troop density in that region will ever be sufficient for counterinsurgency success.
Because progress is mixed and fragile, the American endgame will be crucial. It won't be possible for U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan precipitously, as Obama left Iraq after a failed status of forces negotiation. The absence of a strong security partnership between America and the Afghan government following 2014, says O'Hanlon, would be "potentially fatal." Afghanistan could again become a haven for extremist groups that attack America and India and further destabilize a nuclear Pakistan.
An endless commitment in Afghanistan is not an option. But the choice between a hasty retreat and a patient drawdown will matter greatly.