Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

One week ago, Afghans marked Liberation Day, the 23rd anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan on Feb. 15, 1989. Recent developments are hastening another liberation -- that of the U.S. from Afghanistan.

We think the return of most U.S. troops -- and the transition of the remainder from a combat to a support role -- can and should happen before the end of 2014, the deadline that President Barack Obama has set.

France’s surprise announcement on Jan. 27 that its troops would move from a combat to a training role this March, and would withdraw by the end of 2013, has had a catalyzing effect. Days later U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said U.S. troops would be in a “training, advise and assist role” by “the mid to latter part of 2013.” Meanwhile, the U.S., the Taliban, and the government of Afghan president Hamid Karzai have stepped up their awkward pas de trois over direct peace negotiations. If all goes well, the U.S. hopes that such talks will be under way in time for the NATO summit in Chicago this May, when members of the coalition will discuss the future of the military mission in Afghanistan.

Consensus Needed

The first thing on NATO’s agenda should be establishing a clear consensus on actual conditions within Afghanistan. The recent flurry of conflicting assessments brings to mind what President John F. Kennedy said in 1963, when a Marine general and a State Department official who had recently returned from Vietnam delivered night-and-day accounts of conditions there: “You both went to the same country?”

A classified National Intelligence Estimate and other U.S. reports belie the upbeat assessments recently delivered by Obama and his senior officials, while the United Nations asserts that 2011 was the deadliest year for Afghan civilians since the war started, with 3,021 killed. Asked about the more pessimistic intelligence estimate, Panetta said that it assumed “we would have no presence beyond 2014, which is not going to be the case.”

Before making such a continuing commitment, NATO needs to have an honest discussion about its merits. Start with the Taliban, which despite the gains of the U.S. troop surge, remains a resilient force. If the coalition is not willing or able to muster the forces needed to extirpate the Taliban from the battlefield, some kind of political negotiation seems to be the only viable path forward. Yet as seasoned observers have noted, why would the Taliban agree to a settlement that allows for a foreign military presence intended to keep them in check? In other words, you can have political reconciliation, or you can have an effective coalition presence, but it will be very difficult to have both.

The other argument for keeping a robust U.S. presence in Afghanistan is to have a base from which to strike insurgents and terrorists in Pakistan. That ignores the vulnerability of coalition supply lines through Pakistan, whose military has demonstrated time and again that it is a frenemy at best. To improve the stability of Afghanistan and the region, the U.S. would be wise to end any kind of reliance on Pakistan, cut military aid to that country except for official exchanges and training, and simultaneously expand its development assistance (including trade preferences) to the Pakistani people.

Afghanistan is still a long way from having a democratic and accountable government. But establishing such a government was never part of Operation Enduring Freedom, which began as an effort, President George W. Bush said, “to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.” Nor was democracy-building part of the subsequently established International Security Assistance Force’s original mission, which the UN Security Council said was “to assist the Afghan Interim Authority in the maintenance of security in Kabul and its surrounding areas” for six months.

Lives Improved

The good news about the mission creep that followed is that, in just about every sphere of human activity, it led to a vast improvement in the quality of life for Afghan men, women and children. The bad news is that neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations has ever defined clear strategic goals for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, which has already led to the deaths of nearly 2,000 U.S. military personnel and the wounding of more than 15,000 -- a number that excludes hundreds of casualties among civilian contractors as well.

Are we there just to militarily defeat the Taliban? To establish a Jeffersonian democracy? To prevent a resurgence of the 19th century’s Great Game? Meanwhile, the coalition’s Brobdingnagian presence -- by some yardsticks, outside money accounts for more than 90 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product -- has distorted the development of the country’s political and economic institutions and fostered a climate of corruption.

More broadly, the conflict has distracted the U.S. from other priorities. The more than $500 billion the U.S. has spent on the war in Afghanistan over the last decade, for example, easily represents 500 times what it has devoted to combating drug gangs from Mexico and Central America. The almost $90 billion in assistance that the U.S. has committed to Afghanistan’s population of 34.4 million is almost double the amount of U.S. economic aid from 2001 to 2010 to the 48 countries and 1 billion-plus people of sub-Saharan Africa.

The rule of holes -- when you’re in one, stop digging -- may not be the most elegant theory of foreign relations, but in this case it makes sense. The U.S. should stick to the Panetta 2013 timeline and depart next year. In a worst-case scenario, that could result in a reversal of many of the gains that the Afghan people have made. But the abiding U.S. interest in Afghanistan is to prevent its use as a base for terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its allies. With the killing of Osama bin Laden and many members of al-Qaeda’s leadership, the U.S. military has achieved much of what it set out to do, and it would have more than a year to build on that progress.

Over the last decade the U.S. has made an enduring point: Any nation that allows a terrorist attack on the U.S. from its soil faces a response that will be swift, brutal and relentless. Isn’t that enough?

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