Consider these alternative futures for Afghanistan in the year 2014.
In one future, the United States and NATO are beginning to draw down troops from the levels they reached in 2010. That was a bloody year, as were the two that followed it, but the level of violence has been dropping steadily since then as the sense of order and stability improves. As happened in Iraq, Coalition forces have come to be respected as the best guarantor of stability and security in most of the country. In some regions this is because the legitimacy of the Afghan government is fully accepted, and in others it is due to bilateral arrangements made by Coalition troops with local tribes. Terrorist attacks are still a regular occurrence, and a low level of cross border violence from Pakistan-based militants--who are harassed but not significantly hampered by the government in Islamabad--seems to be irreducible. But in general the widespread violence which spiked in the later part of the last decade is fading into memory, and the "safe-havens" within Afghanistan where the Taliban and al Qaeda could trade poppy, train, and operate, are eliminated. There are still such places in Pakistan, but our robust presence along the Afghan border gives us options for dealing with them, and leverage over the Pakistani government.
Perhaps most importantly, the legitimacy of the United States and NATO as international guarantors of security who are true to their word, and who do not abandon whole nations due to political exigency, has been maintained.
Now consider the alternative. It is 2014, and in places like Helmand province most people have not seen a Coalition serviceman in years. When they do come, they come at night, break down someone's door and take away someone's father or brother, who is usually never seen again. This is, however, a much less common occurrence than the sudden descent of incredible destruction from the sky. Again, this usually happens at night, and in the morning the news spreads of how many women and children were killed, how there were no militants in the area, et cetera. The national government fell in 2013, and what was left of the Afghan army retreated to the north, where it achieved some level of dominance and where the situation has come to resemble the pre-9/11 struggle between the Northern Alliance and the Pashto-dominated Taliban. In the south and the east, a loose confederation of militant groups under the aegis of the Taliban vie for control, and a pre-modern theocratic totalitarianism is the daily situation in most villages and cities: beheadings, stonings, and other manifestations of divine justice are conducted regularly and in public to maintain what order there can be. As foreigners from America and Europe withdrew, foreigners from places like the Caucuses, Arabia, and North Africa have come in increasing numbers, and locals hear rumors of training camps located in remote areas. The most significant consequence of the Coalition's draw-down in 2010 actually has little to do with Afghanistan at all: the Pakistani government is now about to fall, having been fully destabilized by attacks based across the Afghan border. In the highest militant circles, liaisons are being sought with the Pakistani intelligence service to discuss the future of that country's nuclear arsenal.
These alternatives are the very likely consequences of the two courses of action being considered by policy makers at the present moment. (A third possible course of action--to continue with the present counterinsurgency strategy while failing to provide a decisive level of troops--leads just as clearly to the second possible future.) What is frustrating about the debate between the "counterinsurgency option" versus the "http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1919960,00.html target=_blank>off-shore option" is that we have tried both courses of action before.
Counterinsurgency is what we finally learned how to do in Iraq and, with all the necessary caveats understood, it is working. "Off-shore" reliance on special forces and air strikes was the course pursued by the Clinton administration through the 1990s and initially continued by the Bush administration. It led to 9/11. You would think that would be enough said.