Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. described the Obama administration’s latest war strategy in deliberately stark terms in his debate with Representative Paul D. Ryan: “We are leaving Afghanistan in 2014, period.” Mr. Ryan did not dispute that deadline, but insisted on a little wiggle room, saying that Mitt Romney would consult with his generals about the timing and resources and conditions on the ground, to avoid imperiling America’s gains in a war that began in 2001.
Remarkably, that exchange 11 days ago may have been the most substantive discussion all campaign season about how to manage the longest-running conflict in American history. It was not an argument over what America’s goals should be, but how fast to get out.
Yet for either President Obama or Mr. Romney, finding a satisfactory end to the war in Afghanistan and maintaining American influence in the continuing covert battle in Pakistan will be a far greater challenge than simply deciding whether to turn out the lights, or dim them, on the war effort after 2014. Managing the conflict while America heads for the exits will require the next president to confront a series of difficult choices, some of which may finally surface Monday night at the third and final presidential debate, when Afghanistan will be one of five subjects the two candidates discuss.
Even after more than a decade of conflict, the decisions that will be required will be painful: Will the United States keep training the Afghan Army, even if “green- on-blue” attacks — Afghan troops turning on their trainers — keep taking a deadly toll? Will the next president work through the increasingly hostile Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, or work around him, since he is supposed to leave office around the time that American troops depart? Will he keep trying to negotiate with the Taliban, or exercise influence by keeping an “enduring presence” of 10,000 to 15,000 troops inside Afghanistan?
Even if the next president successfully negotiates that long-term American presence in Afghanistan — a part of the administration’s plan that was never acknowledged by Mr. Biden in the debate — will it prove long enough to keep the Taliban from retaking strategic cities? Will it sustain attacks inside Pakistan against insurgents, and, if necessary, enable the United States to respond quickly enough if Pakistan’s fast-expanding nuclear arsenal appears in jeopardy of falling into the hands of extremists?
Underlying all these questions is a more fundamental one: Was Mr. Obama’s troop increase, which officially came to an end last month, worth the cost in American blood and treasure? Mr. Obama has avoided that discussion throughout the campaign. When the so-called surge of troops ended, returning the American force level to its pre-increase total of 68,000, he never acknowledged the moment, perhaps to avoid reminding Americans that so many American troops remained, or to avoid reminding the Taliban that even those troops will soon be gone.
For his part, Mr. Romney has rarely delved into the question of how he would handle the war differently. In January, trying to appeal to his conservative base, he declared, “We should not negotiate with the Taliban, we should defeat the Taliban,” adding that his strategy would amount to, “We go anywhere they are, and we kill them.” After aides warned him that sounded like a prescription for endless war, he has not repeated that view since.
The reality facing the next president is a fairly grim one. Officials say that the next occupant of the Oval Office will have to confront the fact that as Americans and their allies pull out, the Taliban will regain control over territory American troops fought and died to secure.
“When you look at the map in two years, the Taliban are going to be controlling big, rural swaths of the south,” one senior administration official said. “And that’s something no one wants to talk about very much.”
Perhaps the absence of any sustained discussion in the campaign should be of little surprise: Mr. Obama is haunted by seemingly reasonable assumptions made in 2009 about how the troop increase would turn out, almost all of which turned out to be off the mark. And Mr. Romney sooner or later will have to decide whether his call for a restoration of American leadership, which he talks about almost daily at campaign stops, includes extending a war that has grown deeply unpopular, even among Republicans.
The most immediate issue facing the next president is how to ensure that Afghanistan’s major cities remain in Afghanistan’s control. For Mr. Obama, it is not a new problem.
When the president was first assessing the Afghan and Pakistan strategy in 2009, intelligence reports circulating in the White House and the Pentagon reported that Taliban fighters were advancing on Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city and the Taliban’s spiritual home. Other insurgent units were moving into position to encircle the capital, Kabul. Members of Mr. Obama’s national security team saw a possible disaster looming early in his presidency, one that to his older aides was reminiscent of the scenes of Americans fleeing Saigon, when Mr. Obama was still a teenager in Hawaii.
At the time, the administration dismissed the threat. But securing the Karzai government — even though it had just won re-election in a contest that involved significant fraud — helped drive Mr. Obama’s decision to commit more than 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan, over the reservations of Mr. Biden and others.
Administration officials are finally beginning to acknowledge publicly how dire the situation actually was in 2009. “Afghanistan faced the real prospect that the Taliban would take over large parts of the country,” Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta said recently, echoing more specific assessments by lower-level officials who declined to be named. “I think there was a real risk that the mission in Afghanistan might very well fail.”
There is no question that the troop increase blunted Taliban offensives, forcing the insurgents to retreat from critical population centers across Kandahar and Helmand Provinces. Once they retreated, Afghan forces were able to send troops into these areas and establish security. And the security ring around Kabul has been extended.
The military, eager to provide metrics to prove what it accomplished, notes major improvements in civilian life. Before the troop increase, 7.1 million Afghan children were in school, including 2.7 million girls. Now the figure is 8.2 million children, including 3.1 million girls. The Pentagon argues that 80 percent of the Afghan population now lives in comparative safety, in places where only 20 percent of the attacks initiated by insurgents occur. Today the fear is a bit different: that the tenuous gains made by the troop increase will erode.
“We wanted to wrest back control of the south from the Taliban — that was their psychological birthplace and real center of gravity,” said Brig. Gen. Gordon B. Davis, who spent years in Kabul and now oversees the teaching of Afghanistan’s lessons at the Army’s main school for young officers, at Fort Leavenworth. But when asked to assess whether the effort was worth the cost, General Davis chose his words carefully, as do his colleagues. “I think so, to date,” he said. “We’ll really have to wait and see until next year to see just how successful, how enduring, it is.”
General Davis’s question about “endurance” is the one likely to dominate Situation Room debates about Afghanistan over the next year. The 353,000 Afghan security forces trained by the United States and its NATO allies may not be able to hold the rural territory, despite Mr. Obama’s instructions in 2009 that the military should not seize any territory that it could not reliably transfer to the Afghans.
If the Taliban start moving toward the cities, would American forces re-enter the conflict? Mr. Biden seemed to say no at the vice presidential debate. White House officials say only if Kabul is threatened would the United States intervene beyond the planned mission to train Afghan forces and go after high-value terrorist targets. Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan insist they will make sure hard-fought gains are not lost, but they do not say what they are prepared to do to prevent that.
Nor has any candidate talked about how to deal with Mr. Karzai, whose promises of ending a legacy of corruption and ineptitude have gone unfulfilled. Indeed, as the troop increase ended, officials in Washington were angered to hear Mr. Karzai publicly denounce the American-led war effort. Those criticisms came as the Pentagon tallied the 2,000th American death of the war.
Then there is Pakistan. Even the biggest enthusiasts of the troop increase — those in the military and the White House who maintain the Taliban have been rolled back — concede that Pakistan was a place where almost nothing worked. “Offering them a new, steady source of aid doesn’t give us much leverage,” one White House official noted in a recent interview, “and threatening to cut off aid doesn’t give us much, either.”
A senior military official said that before the troop increase there were roughly 2,000 insurgents moving regularly across the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And after the increase was over, he said, there are still about 2,000.
The low was hit in 2011, after a series of events that angered both sides: the killing of two Pakistani assailants by a C.I.A. security officer, the raid on Osama bin Laden’s lair in Abbottabad that sparked outrage over the violation of Pakistani sovereignty, and the American airstrike on a Pakistani border outpost that killed 24 soldiers.
Lurking just beyond the tensions over counterterrorism is another problem that the administration has steadfastly refused to discuss in public: the rapid expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. The growth has largely come in the form of new, smaller, more mobile weapons, which many fear would be easier to steal. And attacks on Pakistani bases by the Pakistani Taliban, including a series in recent months at sites where nuclear weapons are believed to have been stored, has only driven the anxiety higher.
American officials now talk broadly of a new awareness among Pakistanis of the threat posed to their nation by militancy, and they have heard promises by the government of a military initiative this coming winter — but they predicted the same thing at the beginning of the American troop increase.