We have a nominee for secretary of defense — Mr. Hagel — who bobs his head approvingly at military budget cuts that have been rejected as draconian by the current secretary of defense, Mr. Panetta. Mr. Hagel has also rejected “senseless wars,” (as though there were senators who were advocating senseless wars.) Mr. Hagel has strong convictions and scant gravitas. So as our troops withdraw from a war that was not won, they have a potential leader who has yet to evince concern about resources, stability in the greater Middle East, and that most critical of intangibles: morale.
Compounding the problem looming in Afghanistan, administration officials have gone out of their way to signal that military recommendations for more than 10,000 U.S. troops remaining after 2014 are unwelcome. (See yesterday’s New York Times.) Add to this the fact that President Karzai is an erratic and unreliable strategic partner, and the way forward in Afghanistan looks perilous.
The incoming commander in Afghanistan, General Joseph Dunford, has one exceptionally strong card he can play: that of paymaster. Despite Karzai’s screams, Dunford can make it clear that, on behalf of the U.S. and its allies, he — and not Karzai’s government — will pay the Afghan forces. If Mr. Panetta can cut a deal with Congress for, say, three years of guaranteed pay for the Afghan troops, that will be the last, best hope for averting a downward spiral into a civil war along tribal boundaries.