There is a growing chorus of right-of-center national security analysts warning that President Obama's Afghan pullout is going to end in disaster. While I don't agree with their prescription (stationing tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan indefinitely) I do think they're right to warn about the deterioration in security that's likely to follow a U.S. withdrawal. Afghanistan may not revert completely to Taliban rule or abject disorder, but it seems foolish to blithely assume, as the Obama administration's public rhetoric suggests, that all is well on the path to a stable "transition" to Afghan control.
But this deterioration points to one of the underlying problems with stationing troops in Afghanistan forever. If ten years of U.S. and international efforts have not produced durable stability, why would ten or twenty more years do the same?
More broadly, the failure in Afghanistan points to a central issue facing U.S. and Western counter-terrorism policy in general -- how to deal with ungoverned spaces? The French intervention in Mali, the not-so-covert American campaigns in the Horn of Africa and Yemen, the drone war in Pakistan -- these are all ways of grappling with the threat without committing massive numbers of soldiers and financial resources to rebuild governing institutions. It's likely that Afghanistan will fall into this category as well after 2014. This template may not satisfy the neoconservative fantasy of Kipling 2.0, but it's hard to see a feasible alternative that won't quickly bankrupt already economically challenged governments.