War- and recession-weary voters simply didn’t want to hear about Afghanistan during the presidential campaign, and, with few exceptions, both candidates obliged them. Yet a series of setbacks there have decreased the prospect that U.S. and NATO forces will leave behind a stable country in two years. Partly because of inadequate vetting for Taliban infiltration, for instance, Afghan security forces have repeatedly attacked coalition troops, making it difficult to transfer security responsibilities. Attempts to negotiate with the Taliban to end a war almost no one thinks can be won militarily have also failed; insurgents appear to be waiting out the coalition’s 2014 withdrawal.
Between now and then, the administration must set a schedule for pulling out the remaining 68,000 U.S. troops. American military leaders want maximum troop levels, but Obama has rejected their previous requests for a full-court press. His administration must also determine the size of a residual support force to linger past 2014, as well as the number of Afghan troops that Washington and its allies are willing to bankroll once NATO combat operations end. But the administration has not solved two potentially fatal flaws that dog the Afghan strategy: a corrupt Afghan government that has struggled to extend its authority well beyond Kabul, and uncontested Taliban sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan. Many experts now believe the current strategy will lead to a protracted civil war in Afghanistan once NATO departs.
The killing in Libya of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens by militant Islamists points to a growing national-security threat: The Arab Spring rebellions have created additional space for Islamist extremist groups to operate. Ansar al-Sharia, suspected in the Benghazi attack, is one of numerous militias that vie with the nascent Libyan government for primacy. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has launched multiple terrorist plots against the United States, took advantage of political turmoil to seize territory in Yemen. After a military coup toppled the government in Mali this year, the Qaida-linked extremists of Ansar Dine seized power and enforced sharia in the country’s north. Islamist militants in Egypt have attacked police checkpoints in the Sinai and launched cross-border strikes against Israel. Jihadists groups are flocking to the civil war in Syria, threatening to take root inside an increasingly radicalized Syrian rebellion. And al-Qaida in Iraq remains a potent threat to Baghdad’s weak government.
After a wave of cyberattacks against large U.S. financial institutions and the Saudi Arabian state oil company, the Pentagon has pushed Congress for legislation requiring tougher cybersecurity standards at infrastructure facilities in the private sector. Without such safeguards, the United States is vulnerable to a “cyber Pearl Harbor,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned last month.
Closer to home, Obama is trying to shave $487 billion from defense spending over a decade—one of the shallowest postwar cuts in history—without repeating the Pentagon’s 1990s “procurement holiday.” That hiatus left today’s arsenal (much of which dates from the Reagan-era buildup) badly in need of upgrades. Romney chided Obama for overseeing the smallest U.S. Navy since 1917 and the oldest Air Force since 1947. He lost the election, but he had a point.