Afghanistan’s presidential election, now apparently headed for a runoff stage, will mark the first peaceful transition of power in the history of that unfortunate country, ravaged by endless war since 1979. Displaying courage in the face of adversity, Afghans braved Taliban attacks and threats to vote in large numbers in the April 5 first round, whose still-partial results put former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah in the lead, followed by former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani.

After almost 35 years of bloodletting, Afghans are desperate for peace. President Hamid Karzai’s successor will has his work cut out for him, including promoting national reconciliation by building bridges among the country’s disparate ethnic and political groups; strengthening the fledgling, multiethnic Afghan Army; and ensuring free and fair parliamentary elections next year.

The role of external players, however, overshadows these internal dynamics. Pakistan remains a big part of Afghanistan’s problem. It still harbors militant sanctuaries and the command-and-control structure for Afghan insurgency. Pakistani interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs can be made to stop only if U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration finally makes that a condition for continuing its generous aid to cash-strapped Pakistan — a remote prospect.

Obama, meanwhile, has made a U-turn on the U.S. and NATO military presence in Afghanistan and is now seeking bases there for a virtually unlimited period. He had declared in Cairo in 2009, “We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there.”

But in a change of heart, he now wants bases there to house a fairly sizable U.S.-led NATO force armed with authority to “conduct combat operations.” However, having failed to persuade Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement providing the legal basis for keeping U.S. bases indefinitely, Obama must win over the next Afghan president.

Although Kabul and Washington have finalized the agreement’s terms, Karzai withstood intense U.S. pressure to sign the document, leaving that critical decision to his successor. Karzai clearly didn’t want to go down in Afghan history as the main facilitator of a long-term foreign military presence.

The U.S., once it militarily intervenes in a country, has a penchant for not leaving. For example, U.S. military presence still continues in Japan and Germany from World War II. The fact that Iraq proved an exception to this pattern has made the appeal particularly strong in Washington to maintain bases in Afghanistan, where America is seeking to terminate the longest war in its history. American Gen. Joe Dunford, heading U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has identified 10,000 U.S. soldiers as the minimum needed to protect the bases and play a useful role.

Obama has proffered no explanation as to how a residual U.S.-led force could make a difference in Afghanistan when a much larger force is staring at defeat in an intervention that began almost 13 years ago. Yet there is bipartisan support in the U.S. to keep military bases in Afghanistan, largely to project hard power. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has slammed Obama for failing to secure the accord with Karzai, saying even a “trained ape” could do better.

To be sure, America’s ongoing drawdown of troop levels in Afghanistan seeks to apply a key lesson from the Soviet military pullout from that nation — the critical importance of staggered and calibrated reductions. The 1988-89 Soviet withdrawal happened too rapidly. U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan, which peaked at slightly more than 100,000 in 2010-2011, is being gradually reduced, with barely 20,000 soldiers expected to remain by July.

However, the risk of a post-2014 mission creep is real. It cannot be forgotten that the limited authority Congress gave Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, to use force against those who “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. spawned an expansive military intervention that has cost $600 billion and left countless dead.

More fundamentally, Obama has not grasped the main reason as to why America’s war in Afghanistan has foundered — failure to reconcile military and political objectives.

From the time it invaded in 2001, America pursued a military surge in Afghanistan, but an aid surge to the next-door country harboring terrorist havens and the “Quetta Shura,” as the Afghan Taliban leadership there is known. The war was made unwinnable by Washington’s own refusal to target Pakistan for actively abetting elements killing or maiming U.S. troops.

Obama’s basing strategy could presage a shift from a full-fledged war to a low-intensity war but without fixing the incongruous duality in America’s “Afpak” policy. Indeed, a smaller U.S. force in Afghanistan would only increase Washington’s imperative to mollycoddle Pakistani generals and cut a deal with the “Quetta Shura” in order to secure American bases.

Washington plans to gift Pakistan its surplus military hardware in Afghanistan, including several hundred mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles.

It has also agreed to taper off drone strikes in Pakistan. The number of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan actually declined from 122 in 2010 to 26 in 2013, with no attacks since December.

Even more revealing is what the drones have not targeted. To preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with its main battlefield opponent — the Afghan Taliban — the U.S. has not carried out a single air, drone or ground attack against its leadership, which is ensconced in Pakistan’s sprawling Baluchistan province. U.S. drone strikes have been restricted to the Pakistani tribal region to the north, Waziristan, where they have targeted the Pakistani Taliban — the nemesis of the Pakistani military.

A continued U.S. approach based on reward for Pakistan and punishing airstrikes in Afghanistan, even if less frequent, would make the latter’s future more uncertain than ever.

To make matters worse, the U.S. plans to start significantly cutting aid to Kabul next year, which threatens to undermine a key requirement to keep the Afghan Taliban at bay — strengthening Afghanistan’s security forces, which, even at their current size, will cost about $5 billion a year. Without generous foreign aid, this sum is beyond the Afghan government’s reach.

Last May, Obama recalled the warning of James Madison — America’s fourth president — that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Yet he now seeks a long-term military engagement in Afghanistan, which is good news for the Pakistani generals but not for U.S., Afghan or regional interests.

Admittedly, there are no good options. But an indefinite role for foreign forces would be the equivalent of administering the same medicine that has seriously worsened the patient’s condition.

In the post-2014 scenario, the U.S.’ geopolitical advantage from keeping bases could dissipate as its residual forces, in response to attacks, get sucked into bloody counterterrorism missions on the wrong side of the disputed Durand Line that divides Afghanistan and Pakistan. History then will come full circle for the U.S.

It is past time for Afghanistan to be in charge of its own security and destiny. International role and assistance should be limited to strengthening the Afghan government’s hand and reining in Pakistan’s use of surrogate militias.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

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