As the US and Afghanistan negotiate a long-term security pact, the idea of a prolonged American presence signals US willingness to do the right thing.
Afghan security means planning for the long haul
It would be a challenge to say who will be more disappointed at the news that thousands of US troops could remain in Afghanistan for another decade. The Taliban and the US public will both be dismayed by this news, though for different reasons.
Reports of an extended American stay in that war-ravaged nation have been building for months. A renegotiated security agreement is in the works; details are unclear though some reports have put an unofficial end date at 2024. Needless to say this would be a tough sell in Washington and even Kabul, where publics want to see American soldiers go home.
Nonetheless, any extension of the US presence would be the right medicine for a country that remains gravely ill. Even with a large US contingent (and a scattering of allied troops) remaining, Afghanistan will continue to be a woeful place - dangerous, corrupt, and poor.
If the US military presence vanished today, descent back to failed-state status would be inevitable. But America needs to do more than merely stay in the country: America needs to help Afghans create stability - and that task will be more political than military.
In December of 2009 Barack Obama, the US president, announced a "surge" of 30,000 extra troops, but said they would be withdrawn starting this year. When they have all finally left, 16 months from now, almost 70,000 uniformed Americans will remain. Then last November, he set a 2014 deadline for US withdrawal from combat; security duties would be handed over to the government.
Now comes word of a new pact with the Afghan government, to be signed before a December security conference in Bonn. Under this deal, first reported by the Daily Telegraph, perhaps 25,000 men would remain in the country in fighter-jet and helicopter units, special forces and as trainers.
This development reveals pragmatic acceptance of reality by the Obama administration. If the Afghan government and its forces are not capable of establishing a respectable level of public support in the next three years, air power and special forces will be vital in limiting Taliban incursions. And if the government can gain support it will still need air and logistics support.
Under cover of all this manpower, the work of helping Afghans build their society goes on. And here, at least, the American efforts are only part of the story, as a $250 million development package announced this week by the UAE demonstrates.
The US will, we hope, maintain a robust presence while encouraging Afghans to govern, fight and develop better. Among difficult options, this is the right one to choose.