With the debate currently raging about what strategy to take in Central Asia, I think it's a good idea to take a step back and look at the ultimate objective. I don't think we've heard a clear definition of what victory looks like in Afghanistan. The President talks about defeating Al Qaeda and making sure that Afghanistan is not a launching point for future attacks against the US. That's pretty vague.
I'm going to sketch out what I see as the absolute best-case-scenario for Afghanistan. I will also speak to the problems in getting to that point and in the future.
Let me preface this by saying that, in my opinion, this will not happen without embracing Gen. McChrystal's strategy of population-centric counterinsurgency. And yes, that means sending a lot more troops to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is not going to become a shining jewel of secular representative democracy and peace in Central Asia. Ideally, the extra troops and emphasis on pop-centric COIN will SLOWLY grind down the insurgency and build up the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. This will take years. Closer to 5+ than 2. Emphasis will have to be put on expanding the ANA and ANP by hundreds of thousands of men. This will be paid for entirely by NATO, since Afghanistan has one exportable product: heroin. At some point during this, an Afghan government that is seen as fair and (relatively) free of corruption will need to take root in Kabul.
We've already seen that we cannot count on our NATO allies to provide many (if any) extra troops to help with this mission. So the vast majority of this burden will fall on the tired shoulders of the US Military. There will be more casualties. Probably a lot more. Pop-centric COIN puts troops in danger, without a doubt. US troops will have to be out there on foot patrols, talking to the population, and working with them, as well as the ANA and ANP.
So, this is likely to cost hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds more American lives. The ideal end result? A stable Afghan government able to protect its own population with a large, well-trained and well-equipped ANA and ANP, and able to squash any attempts by Al Qaeda or the Taliban to establish a new foothold in the country. (I reject the notion that defeating Al Qaeda does not involve also defeating the Taliban. There are certainly reconcilable elements of the Taliban, as there were reconcilable insurgents in Iraq, but a Taliban-run Afghanistan is not victory.) Notice that I have made no assertions as to the type of government in Kabul, merely that it is mostly free of corruption and able to control the country. I'm willing to accept a government that isn't exactly democratic if they're able to maintain security in the country.
So now, after over a decade in the Hindu Kush, we are ready to start drawing down troops. Is that the end of it? Unfortunately, no. Someone needs to pay for the ANA and ANP that is keeping the peace in Afghanistan, and as I pointed out earlier, the government doesn't have a ready source of revenue. (Unless, of course, the world suddenly decides to legalize heroin.) NATO will have to continue to subsidize the Afghan government indefinitely.
This is best-case-scenario. I have serious doubts as to whether or not it can actually happen, particularly the stable, not-corrupt Afghan Government. I think the President needs to make the decision between shooting for this (and doubling down, sending a lot more troops and money) or giving up and trying to get out of Afghanistan ASAP. One thing I haven't mentioned is that most COIN strategy is written from the perspective of a government suppressing an insurgency on its own land. Most COIN literature on third parties says basically "good luck, you'll need it."
I don't know the answer. But right now, there are no good choices. And that is probably why the President is agonizing over this decision so much. I'm not sure he knew what he was getting himself into when he made his promises about the "war of necessity" in Central Asia. I hope he is able to put those aside when making his decision and does what is best for the country.
(Sorry for the lack of links/citations in this post, it's sort of an amalgamation of everything I've read about Afghanistan over the past year or so, so links and such are not readily available.)