Public support for most wars comes with an expiration date. In Afghanistan in 2001, where a punitive expedition would have sufficed, an exemplary case of "mission creep" took over and the domestic support predictably waned fast. Ten years and half a trillion dollars later, political will, too, has ebbed considerably and there is now a foreseeable end to American combat operations in Afghanistan. The latter half of 2014, if Barack Obama can have his way.
Long-term stability in the region is of course far from assured. And though for some, the limited success of the International Security Assistance Force's (ISAF) nation-building efforts will factor very marginally when gauging overall success in Afghanistan, the consequences of leaving with a government in place whose area of influence is heavily circumscribed could be severe.
Equally important, it is unlikely these consequences will be limited to the Afghan state. The recent call from the Russian foreign minister, warning NATO not to leave a volatile Afghanistan, is among the more visible expressions of the latent fears many of the country's neighbors harbor.
To ask the ISAF to stay now, however, seems ludicrous. They are tired. And if the public reaction to the inadvertent Koran-burning incident is any indication of the general sentiment, it seems they're no longer really wanted. Also, the ISAF has achieved limited but very welcome success on the counter-insurgency and development assistance fronts.
Afghanistan is no longer a hub for global terrorist activity and there have been some improvements in health, education and economic well-being. This makes an exit look a lot more appealing now.
For Afghanistan, what the coming years will look like largely depends on whether the central government can lay claim to greater legitimacy. Given that tribal allegiances trump most other determinants of loyalty, constructing a functional central state in Afghanistan will continue to be an uphill task. The eastern provinces, for example, have proven nearly impenetrable. The operational successes achieved there are clearly reversible, and there is little reason to believe this will change when the Afghan security forces try alone.
A BETTER-EQUIPPED and better-trained local security force might have a slightly better chance at making temporary inroads to areas where the center has little relevance. However, as former ISAF commander US Gen. (ret.) Stanley McChrystal remarked, the military aspect of even the best counter-insurgency campaigns can do little more than provide the time and space for a civilian government to take root.
To help ensure this civilian government stays relevant in the periphery it needs to outcompete its rivals in providing services. Improvements in transparency, health care, primary education, electricity, sanitation and access to clean water would give the average Afghan a reason to believe it is better with a strong government at the center.
Seeking greater external engagement is one way Kabul can achieve some of these goals more efficiently.
Considering that India and Russia have faced terror attacks from groups operating in the Af-Pak region, and given the potential vulnerability of China's western territories to separatist and extremist influence, there is incentive for these actors to help create a stable Afghanistan.