Will The Taliban Wait Us Out?

President Obama's speech Tuesday night confirmed reports that his strategy in Afghanistan includes a timetable for withdrawal. The U.S. and NATO will "begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011," he announced. This has raised a concern that is sure to linger for some time: Will the Taliban wait us out? The fear, put forward by Republicans and even some news outlets, is that Taliban insurgents cognizant of our scheduled departure will simply "wait in the weeds," as John McCain famously put it in 2007 when condemning a timetable for withdrawal in Iraq. The White House is already pushing back. But the fear is not totally ungrounded. As is often true of the complex war in Afghanistan, it's impossible to know for sure, and both sides have a case.

President Obama has good reason to believe the Taliban won't wait out our departure. We often make the mistake of thinking of the Taliban as an inexorable part of Afghan culture, but the Taliban has only existed for about 15 years. It's a young organization, especially for Afghanistan's ancient and tradition-rich culture, and the Taliban's roots do not reach far. Surely, any enemy can be defeated. No one raised concerns that the Imperial Japanese Navy was just waiting out our occupation of Japan, and sure enough, when we left in 1952 there was no invasion of California. President Obama, at a lunch Tuesday with Marc Ambinder and other journalists (Marc's notes here), dismissed the concerns.

... With respect to the waiting it out argument, this is an argument that I don't give a lot of credence to because if you follow the logic of this argument then you never leave. Essentially, you'd be signing on to have Afghanistan as a protectorate of the United States indefinitely.

... Let's assume that the Taliban does decide to wait us out...the whole point is to create Afghan capacity in terms of governance and security so that you have a more healthy body politic. But the time the Taliban decide, OK, the U.S. is starting to draw down, they will find that they will have an Afghan society that is more equipped to repulse their violence.

It's true, the idea of an entire insurgency just ducking under a (presumably very large) rock for a few years is pretty silly. It's one thing for al-Qaeda's hundred or so remaining operatives to hop between mountain caves, but the Taliban is a thousands-strong army. It doesn't hide, it disarms. If the years between disarming and America's departure see little progress, then re-arming is indeed a possibility. But there's evidence that much of the Taliban's force would have neither reason nor desire to re-arm if Afghanistan's economy and governance improve.

In a country with 40% employment and debilitating poverty, Afghans are desperate for jobs, and the Taliban pays, often better than the national Afghan army. Indeed, U.S. officials estimate that 80% to 90% of militants held at the Bagram detention facility in Afghanistan joined the Taliban for nonideological reasons. If the U.S. can significantly improve Afghanistan's economy and governance, the Taliban's recruitment and support will likely whither away, and the entire organization with it. Obama, in his speech, promised to "open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence." The New York Times's Mike Landler reports that projects to build civil society and viable employment alternatives in Afghanistan are going to be a top U.S. priority.

However, the success of this plan is not assured, and worries about the Taliban re-arming are not unfounded. The Taliban may be young, but the underlying militant extremism goes back 30 years and is not limited to just their ranks. Further, no amount of reconstruction projects in Afghanistan will fix Pakistan's chaotic border region, an incubator of the same extremism that sired the Taliban, that launches regular suicide bombings on Pakistani cities, and that could spur another Taliban-like movement.

Even if President Obama's plan to secure Afghanistan's population centers and boost its civil society is sound, he has allowed little time for sweeping changes to take root. The July 2011 draw-down is in 20 months. To put that in perspective, 20 months ago, in April 2008, we were enduring the first stages of the financial crisis, from which we still have not recovered. If we couldn't fix our own economic recession in that period, can we really repair Afghanistan, which is suffering not only a much harsher recession but a deeply corrupt government and a long-collapsed infrastructure, not to mention total civil war? Unless the chaotic border region finally calms, whatever national government and military we leave Afghanistan will likely have to repel future insurgencies. Will they be up to the task?

The unfortunate reality is that the only way to be totally sure of permanently banishing extremism from South Asia would probably be a long and costly nation-building mission in Afghanistan, and possibly Pakistan. But that strategy is as strategically impossible as it is politically toxic. We will have to depart eventually and the Taliban knows this. What really seems to concern the critics of a timetable is not making a firm exit date public but making a firm exit date at all. The resurgence of extremism in Afghanistan will remain a risk for many years to come, regardless of American strategy. The White House has calculated that its strategy reduces that risk as much as possible with as little possible cost. Conservatives who want an open-ended commitment may turn out to be right, as may be liberals who want an immediate draw-down. At this point, not even the Taliban knows for sure what will happen.