In President Obama's big speech today, he offered up the following rationale for continued American military presence in Afghanistan (hat-tip: David Mizner in Quick Hits):
Make no mistake: we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there. It is agonizing for America to lose our young men and women. It is costly and politically difficult to continue this conflict. We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case.
If we are keeping troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan until there are no violent extremists bent on killing Americans, then it is highly likely that we will be keeping a large military presence in the region during the entirety of President Obama's administration. And probably beyond then, too.
Are we really going to root out every last Afghani and Pakistani who wants to kill Americans? The refugee crisis in Pakistan has now displaced over two million people, and the American drone attacks in the region are part of cause. Further, thousands of Afghani civilians have been killed during the war, and it seems unlikely that none of the survivors will become violent extremists determined to kill Americans.
Even if the goal is not to root out all violent extremists, but rather to keep a military presence until such time as local governments can deal with the threat themselves, then we have probably committed ourselves to an operation that will last another decade or more. I find that extremely unsettling, to say the least.
There just doesn't appear to be any exit strategy for Afghanistan, at all. Public opinion still favors a continued American military presence in Afghanistan, but it isn't the overwhelming majority it once was. Also, it is difficult to project if public opinion will hold up during such a long-term commitment. It might, but I wouldn't put money on it. At some point, the majority of the American people will probably want to start reducing our military presence in the region. This could become a major flashpoint for the Obama administration in the years ahead.