If the new security agreement between Washington and Kabul is signed it will mark a major change from a broad counter-insurgency war to a limited counter-terrorist operation.
One way or the other most American troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and the war as we know it will end. The question now being decided in fraught negotiations between Washington and Kabul is whether the U.S. can purchase the right to keep a military presence in Afghanistan after the main war effort is over that can protect national interests and launch targeted operations against terrorists. If the Afghan government agrees to the plan currently being discussed what remains after 2014 will be a much smaller more specialized force refocused from fighting the Taliban and maintaining security to hunting hardcore al Qaeda affiliates across the region.
Echoes of Iraq and the failed negotiations to keep a military force in that country have carried over into the debate about Afghanistan and obscured what is really at stake there. Here is what is really at stake: betting that a small footprint rented at extortionist costs from a corrupt and failing state can be used by U.S. special operations forces to fight jihadist networks and project power over neighboring Iran and Pakistan. It will take years or decades to know how the bet pays off but the immediate costs of an agreement will be another decade of low intensity conflict in south Asia for America’s military and billions more dollars in aid from American taxpayers.