How to get out of Afghanistan without starting a wider war

A partly regional, partly global diplomatic effort is needed to accompany direct negotiation with the Taliban. So long as America bears the primary burden, Afghanistan’s neighbors avoid difficult decisions. To the extent that U.S. postwar withdrawal is made explicit and inexorable, they will be obliged to take another look. The formal deadline established by NATO, the implicit Obama administration deadline and the public mood make it impossible to persist in an open-ended civil war. An immediate withdrawal largely for symbolic reasons would risk falling between all shoals. A multilateral diplomacy that defines a common international security interest proscribing terrorist training centers and terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan should be undertaken urgently. To encourage this process, a deadline should be established for reaching a residual force — say, in 18 months to two years, with the major reductions coming at the end of the process. Should a reliable international enforcement mechanism emerge, the U.S. residual force can be merged into it. A regional conference is the only way a bilateral negotiation with the Taliban can be enforced. If the process proves in­trac­table, Afghanistan’s neighbors will eventually have to face the consequences of their abdication alone.