On Afghanistan, Washington’s military and political leadership is divided into two camps. Neither is likely to be fully satisfied with President Barack Obama’s decision to bring the conflict to “a responsible end” by bringing home 10,000 U.S. troops by the end of this year and 23,000 more before the end of next summer.
The first camp argues that the war has become too costly in terms of casualties, money and voter opinion, and that special operations forces, drone strikes and the like can keep al-Qaeda at bay. They will likely urge the president to stick to his plan no matter what and even to speed up the drawdown for the other 65,000 Americans in the field.
The other side insists that continued military pressure can give Afghan security forces the time they need to take over their country’s defense, allow the civilian side of the Western effort to improve governance and public services, and perhaps lead to a political settlement with the Taliban and its allies. They will try to persuade the president to allow the military to continue to take the fight to the enemy, and to show flexibility on troop reductions based on military developments.
While the former camp seems now to have the upper hand, we side with the latter. Not because we think that classic victory -- whatever that might look like -- is an attainable goal. The issue, at least for the U.S., is what would constitute an acceptable outcome to the decade-long war.
The cost of the conflict is staggering: More than 2,500 U.S. and allied troops killed and more than 10,000 wounded, nearly half a trillion dollars of taxpayer money gone -- not to mention the many thousands of Afghan forces and civilians dead and injured. The big beneficiary has been the corrupt and ungrateful government of Hamid Karzai in Kabul.
Yet President Obama was correct on Wednesday night when he said “we are starting this drawdown from a position of strength.” The “surge” of 2009 resulted in measurable gains in southern Afghanistan, routing Taliban forces in their spiritual capital of Kandahar. The Afghan National Security Forces now number 300,000, and contributed half of the troops involved in clearing Helmand and Kandahar Provinces. There has been marked political progress in the former Taliban stronghold of Marjah and other places that have gained some independence from the Kabul government. An effort to target the insurgency’s midlevel field commanders has thinned their ranks and led some to lay down their arms.
The greatest risk of the president’s announced drawdown is that it might break the momentum of the allied effort and embolden war-weary insurgents to keep up the fight.
We are not naive enough to think that a workable truce with the Taliban, Haqqani Network and other extremist factions is a sure thing, or even likely. Certainly, the Quetta Shura of Mullah Omar and other hard-core Islamists can never be part of a liberal political order. Yet both the allies and the Karzai government have been negotiating at some level with insurgents who seem open to compromise, and we feel it is worth letting the process play out.
We understand that allowing former Taliban, even those who have given up their weapons and agreed to abide by the Afghan constitution, into the political arena risks setbacks to goals Americans hold dear, such as women’s rights, protection of minorities and equal justice. That may be the price we have to pay for leaving behind an Afghanistan that is reasonably secure, is unlikely to become a haven for al-Qaeda and other terrorists, and is politically stable enough to survive the effect of reactionary Islamist politicians.
That is hardly an ideal outcome. But it is far better than what a hurried American pullout would leave behind.
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