Exit Afghanistan?

NEW DELHI – In his victory speech to a rapturous crowd in Chicago following his reelection, President Barack Obama affirmed that America’s “decade-long conflict” in Afghanistan will now end. The line was greeted with prolonged applause – and understandably so. In fact, this ill-advised war – launched on the basis of a United Nations Security Council resolution – has been grinding on for 11 years, making it the longest in American history.

At the beginning, the war was aimed at eliminating Al Qaeda, vanquishing the Taliban, and transforming Afghanistan into something resembling a Western-style nation-state. With none of these goals fully achieved, America’s intervention – like every other intervention in Afghanistan’s history – is ending unsatisfactorily.

As the curtain drops, two developments will greatly influence the withdrawal process and the ultimate outcome. The first is the management of the transition to Afghan control, which depends on an orderly withdrawal of American and NATO forces by 2014. The second is the election, also to be held in 2014, of a new Afghan president – a process that needs to permit the United States and its NATO allies to claim plausibly that they are handing the country over to a legitimate government.

For Afghanistan, ravaged by war without respite since the “Saur Revolution” of 1978, the endgame will be even more nerve-wracking. As the US military leaves, it will enter another period of political and strategic uncertainty, after almost a half-century of disorder and civil war.