The long, hard AfPak haul

President Barack Obama delivers a speech Tuesday from Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama made this courageous and winning decision last year: He gave SEAL Team 6 the go-ahead to go into Pakistan and take out Osama bin Laden.

But the president made this dubious decision recently: He gave his campaign team the go-ahead to charge that Mitt Romney would not have made the same call to get the al-Qaida chieftain.

Beyond the electoral ramifications of that unseemly political ploy, though, lie even higher stakes, mainly the persisting questions of what to do about not just Afghanistan but Pakistan. U.S. foreign policy officials increasingly use the term “AfPak” in recognition of how closely those problems are linked.

So while pundits debate the ballot-box implications of the Obama camp’s unconvincing attempt to cast Mr. Romney as soft on bin Laden, the larger issue remains: What is the best U.S. policy for minimizing the risks of future terrorist threats from that part of the world?

Our brave troops long ago deprived al-Qaida of the Afghan bases of operations from which it plotted the 9/11 attacks on America.

But al-Qaida still finds safe haven in Pakistan — though thanks in part to President Obama, bin Laden finally learned a year ago that he wasn’t safe even in his compound there.

Still, it was revealing — and chilling — for Americans to learn that bin Laden lived in Abbottabad, not far from an elite Pakistani military academy, for six years. Clearly, many prominent Pakistani officials had to be aware of his presence.

Even more chilling is the fact that Pakistan’s government, unlike Afghanistan’s, has nuclear weapons.

Yet President Obama was upbeat Tuesday as he marked the anniversary of bin Laden’s demise with a surprise visit to Afghanistan. He proclaimed that “we can see the light of a new day” in the struggle against terrorism while stressing that the U.S. remains “on a path” toward the destruction of al-Qaida.

The president also stressed that we remain on a gradual course for withdrawing nearly all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. He delivered that reminder soon after signing, along with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a 10-year security and financial aid agreement.

President Obama reiterated that U.S. personnel will continue to support and train Afghan forces to take over the counterterrorism effort against the Taliban.

The difficulty of that task was abruptly re-confirmed less than two hours after the president left Afghanistan when the Taliban, getting a head start on the spring offensive that it had vowed to launch today, took responsibility for a suicide car bombing that killed seven people.

But critics who call the president’s withdrawal schedule too rapid should recognize that we can’t stay in Afghanistan forever. It’s already been more than a decade since President George W. Bush initiated our intervention there in league with NATO.

Eventually, that long-suffering nation’s fate must be determined by the Afghan people.

Some understandably frustrated Americans regard the considerable U.S. blood and treasure invested there as wasted. They should recognize that purging al-Qaida from Afghanistan and giving Afghans a chance to forge a better future are significant achievements that advance our national interests.

Finally killing bin Laden was a major victory, too. But as Jose Rodriguez Jr., former director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, points out on today’s Commentary page, our current commander in chief isn’t the only person who deserves credit for that triumph.

Preventing Afghanistan from reverting to its status as a launching pad for terror attacks worldwide, including America, should remain a high priority. So should finding a way to reduce the terror threat from Pakistan.

And regardless of who wins the White House on Nov. 6, those critical challenges will await him.