What Leaving Afghanistan Will Cost

Parsing the President's War Promises

Exploding ordnance amid the poppy fields of Kandahar Province. (Baz Ratner / Courtesy Reuters)

If there is to be a viable way forward in Afghanistan -- one that can reconcile on-the-ground developments with American timelines for withdrawal -- Washington has to start talking about tradeoffs. Both President Barack Obama and U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker have publicly assured Afghans that the United States will not repeat the mistakes of the 1990s, when the world left the country to its own devices. The result, of course, was civil war and Taliban rule. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has vowed to Afghan women, "We will not abandon you." Washington has also agreed to continue economic and social assistance to help make Afghanistan's gains "self-sustaining" past the U.S. withdrawal in 2014.

But no one works under the illusion that U.S. forces would re-enter Afghanistan to protect women's rights. And the president is already framing investing in Afghanistan as a tradeoff with "nation building at home," which makes it difficult to envision sustained, long-term funding for programs in Afghanistan that create jobs and keep children in school.

Yet tradeoffs were absent from the president's address from Bagram Air Base on May 1. The administration must come clean about what international forces can and can't execute before world leaders assemble later this month at the NATO summit in Chicago to discuss the future of Afghanistan. If this gathering is to be more than an exchange of lofty speeches and question-riddled commitments, it is time to take a hard and realistic look at the promises that the United States and others are making to Afghanistan -- and whether they are too big to keep.

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