Obama did not create the situation in Afghanistan. One can hold his predecessor responsible for some of the present situation but even that is unfair. Afghanistan is shaped by deep historical forces and an impossible geography. The United States is choosing to conserve its resources but it is unclear if any level of commitment could leave Afghanistan much better off.
A conflict in this difficult country was never going to have a neat ending. The best-case scenario is probably a reasonably competent government in Kabul that has sufficient resources to keep other parts of the country more or less in line and prevent outbreaks of major violence. Ideally, it could introduce a certain element of modernism to the areas under its direct writ and slowly expand those areas. For the United States, the ability to maintain leverage on the situation without breaking the bank (or the army) is critical. That may, roughly, be what can be achieved in the new agreement.
The U.S. has established a long-term relationship with Afghanistan and will hopefully be able to use its influence to foster very prudent and realistic development goals while keeping particularly vicious bad actors in check. This will take a great deal of skill on the part of American diplomats and policy-makers but one benefit of the decade of engagement is that the United States has developed at least a modest reserve of expertise on the country.
The president noted that destroying the Taliban outright may not have been possible. But at least limiting their power – particularly if it can be done at a low-cost – is well worth doing. Finally, re-shaping our relationship with Afghanistan will allow the United States to change its relationship with its neighbor, the national time-bomb Pakistan.
Following up, I need to emphasize that this will be a very ugly resolution. Looking over thees bleak assessments of Afghanistan’s future the United States needs to be extremely prudent in its Afghanistan policies, accepting the complex local environments and prioritizing which Afghan capabilities to attempt to develop. This is putting a wonk talk spin on some ugly realities. The US is going to hold its nose when Afghan officials cut deals with the Taliban and aspects of Islamic law that we find abhorrent are instituted in parts of Afghanistan. First and foremost the United States will need to collect intelligence and be able to prevent particularly malicious actors from getting too strong. A combination of power balancing, bribery, and very judiciously applied force will be needed. Hopefully the United States can at least protect its key national security interests, mitigate the human rights violations, and with luck foster Afghan technocrats and liberals who can slowly extend modernity. In all of this we must be exceedingly modest.