With his decision to keep almost 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 but then to withdraw them all by the end of 2016, President Obama has made half of a good decision, only to seriously compromise it with the other half.
Afghanistan could be a success on the ground, where the United States could reverse the prevailing global view of weakness. But this would require a limited troop commitment to accomplish missions, not just to meet a timeline.
We believe strongly in the need to keep a residual U.S. and NATO force in Afghanistan. But before limiting how long that force could remain, other factors needed to be considered.
The first is the perception that the United States lacks firmness in standing up to challenges to the international order. The only antidote is U.S. action, and Afghanistan offers the right location and mission for such action. Keeping a force of nearly 10,000 U.S. troops would add to the momentum seen in Afghanistan's elections, which showed strong popular resistance to the Taliban, and the great progress by the Afghan army. We have much to build on, but U.S. help is essential to keep the army fighting.
Then there is the other half of the decision: to halve the U.S. force in a year and withdraw it in two. This lacks logic. We are committing people to a mission that could require their lives and that is supposedly essential to us, all the while declaring that in less than three years none of this will be in effect. The plan explicitly replicates the Iraq model of putting the training, equipping and counterterrorism functions inside an embassy and an office of military cooperation. This is a route to failure.
When we attempted this in Iraq in 2011, bureaucratic obstacles ranging from legal-immunity questions to budget battles tied up our efforts in knots. The Iraqis were reluctant to allow monitoring and advising through a diplomatic establishment as opposed to a military partnership.
Even worse, without a force "at risk" and a commander to mobilize attention, Washington lost focus.
Being able to say that the Obama White House "totally ended two wars by 2016" risks undermining more than a decade of effort. The fix is easy: Change the date of withdrawal to "when the end of the mission that these troops have risked their lives for is accomplished."
James F. Jeffrey was ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012 and deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration. He is currently the Philip Solondz Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Ronald E. Neumann, ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.