Now it's up to the unreliable Karzai to keep the Taliban down.
The decade-long war in Afghanistan has cost billions of dollars and more than 1,900 American lives, yet the best assessment President Obama could offer Monday was that "our forces broke the Taliban's momentum."
It was hardly a rousing victory speech by Obama, who held a news conference to mark the end of an historic NATO summit in Chicago. But the president's realistic take reflected how difficult it has been to fight a war in which two key regional allies, Afghanistan and Pakistan, are often indifferent, if not hostile, to NATO involvement.
The summit solidified a transition plan to hand over the primary military role to the Afghans by the summer of 2013. A complete transfer of security responsibility from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the Afghan government will occur by the end of 2014.
The United States will still be involved in Afghanistan, however. The two nations recently signed a 10-year strategic partnership agreement, and there will still be a residual U.S. troop presence in the country. This country will also contribute a significant portion of the $4.1 billion annual budget that will be needed to fund Afghan forces.
Finding that funding, and sustaining support for any kind of military involvement, will be exceedingly difficult for NATO. The fiscal crisis nearly every member nation faces has already meant wrenching choices. Funding a military alliance born in the Cold War era, let alone paying for Afghanistan's military, will have little public support on either side of the Atlantic. And because the alacrity, if not the memory, of 9/11 is fading, there's widespread war fatigue in the United States.
No doubt there's weariness in Afghanistan, too, especially since the country has been in some state of warfare since the 1970s. But that's no excuse for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has failed his country and his allies by not developing an effective, motivated military in the decade since the original NATO involvement.
Complacency and corruption have been the hallmarks of his inept rule, and his intemperate statements have often been an insult to the soldiers willing to die for his government. NATO's affirmation of its plans gives Karzai a specific timetable to strive to accomplish what he has been unwilling to do.
Defeating the Taliban is equally important for Afghanistan's neighbor, Pakistan. But its leader, too, has been ambivalent about ISAF involvement. The latest dispute is over closed supply routes that make NATO efforts more difficult and costly. The routes were closed in response to Pakistani furor over an American airstrike that inadvertently killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
Negotiations had focused on demands for a U.S. apology -- Obama has refused -- but now the crux of the conflict is over how much Pakistan will charge per vehicle to use the routes. It's nothing but a shameful shakedown by Asif Ali Zardari, president of Pakistan. It's also indicative of how unreliable and ungrateful Pakistan's government is, despite receiving billions of dollars of U.S. aid over the last decade.
It will be difficult to live up to even the degraded accomplishment of momentum-busting with Karzai and Zardari in charge. But that's the unfortunate situation NATO finds itself in today, and so it is at least an achievement to have agreed to a plan to end combat operations.
For his part, Obama owes it to the American people -- and the troops -- to provide a fuller explanation of the need to keep any U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014, when they could become even more vulnerable in an advisory role to an unreliable Afghan fighting force.
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