Perils in Afghanistan — and beyond

In this Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015 file photo, Afghan Taliban fighters listen to Mullah Mohammed Rasool, unseen, the newly-elected leader of a breakaway faction of the Taliban, in Farah province, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/File)

The first U.S. Special Forces teams invaded Afghanistan on Sept. 26, 2001, in response to the 9/11 attacks planned and run from that distant land.

Now, despite President Barack Obama’s 2014 promise that he was ending America’s longest war “responsibly” with that occasion’s withdrawal of the last U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan, our remaining forces there face serious danger. And the prospects of their being engaged even longer are very real.

A change of U.S. command in Afghanistan is under way. The departing and arriving commanders have told Congress that the situation is deteriorating, with the Taliban controlling more ground than at any time since 2001.

The arriving commander, Army Lt. Gen. John Nicholson, warned that the Afghan army is not yet ready to defeat the Taliban — and that further cuts in U.S. forces would be destabilizing.

Gen. Nicholson also said that “enduring” American commitment to the government of Afghanistan is needed to prevent a Taliban takeover.

His predecessor, Army Gen. John F. Campbell, told Congress last week, “We need to provide the Afghans the time and space for them to continue to build their efficacy.”

While the president has not reversed his decision to halve U.S. force levels in Afghanistan this year and phase them out entirely by 2017, it is clear that if he wants to avoid a debacle he will be forced to change his mind.

President Obama’s attempted solution to the Afghan challenge — a short surge and rapid withdrawal — has not worked out.

Nor will this problem be solved by the time the next commander in chief takes office less than a year from now.

But with the South Carolina presidential primaries fast approaching, now is the time for voters to ask all of the White House candidates serious questions about U.S. foreign policy — and not just in Afghanistan.

That point was well put by Jaime Harrison and Matt Moore, the respective chairs of the S.C. Democratic and Republican parties, in a guest column on our Commentary page.

Mr. Harrison and Mr. Moore stressed the need for those seeking the presidency to address the issue of “global engagement.” They rightly urged each candidate to present “a clear vision for America’s role in the world and how will use all our tolls — diplomacy, development and defense — to advance our nation’s interests and values.”

And that vision must include a realistic assessment of the Taliban’s growing strength and Afghanistan — and what the U.S. could do to counter it.