Time to Pack Up, NYT Editorial

October 14, 2012

NYT Sunday Review, Editorial, October 13, 2012

After more than a decade of having American blood spilled in Afghanistan, with nearly six years lost to President George W. Bush’s disastrous indifference, it is time for United States forces to leave Afghanistan on a schedule dictated only by the security of the troops. It should not take more than a year. The United States will not achieve even President Obama’s narrowing goals, and prolonging the war will only do more harm.

Vice President Joseph Biden Jr. said on Friday that “we are leaving Afghanistan in 2014, period. There is no ifs, ands or buts.” Mr. Obama indicated earlier that this could mean the end of 2014. Either way, two more years of combat, two more years of sending the 1 percent of Americans serving in uniform to die and be wounded, is too long.

Administration officials say they will not consider a secure “logistical withdrawal,” but they offer no hope of achieving broad governance and security goals. And the only final mission we know of, to provide security for a 2014 Afghan election, seems dubious at best and more likely will only lend American approval to a thoroughly corrupt political system.


This conclusion represents a change on our part. The war in Afghanistan had powerful support at the outset, including ours, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

After Mr. Bush’s years of neglect, we believed that a new president, Barack Obama, was doing the right thing by at least making an effort. He set goals that made sense: first, a counterinsurgency campaign, stepped-up attacks on Al Qaeda, then an attempt to demolish the Taliban’s military power, promote democratic governance in Kabul and build an Afghan Army capable of exerting control over the country.

But it is now clear that if there ever was a chance of “victory” in Afghanistan, it evaporated when American troops went off to fight the pointless war in Iraq. While some progress has been made, the idea of fully realizing broader democratic and security aims simply grows more elusive. Meanwhile, more than 2,000 American troops have died in this war, more than 50 of them recently in growing attacks by Afghan forces, and many thousands more have been maimed. The war has now cost upward of $500 billion.

Representative Paul Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, said at the debate on Thursday: “We don’t want to lose the gains we’ve gotten. We want to make sure that the Taliban doesn’t come back in.”

More fighting will not consolidate the modest gains made by this war, and there seems little chance of guaranteeing that the Taliban do not “come back in,” at least in the provinces where they have never truly been dislodged. Last month, militants struck a heavily fortified NATO base. Officials say the Pakistan-based Haqqani network is behind many of the attacks on Americans.

Americans are desperate to see the war end and the 68,000 remaining troops come home. President Obama has not tasked military commanders with recommending a pace for the withdrawal until after the election. He and the coalition partners have committed to remain engaged in Afghanistan after 2014 at reduced levels, which could involve 15,000 or more American troops to carry out specialized training and special operations. Mr. Obama, or Mitt Romney if he wins, will have a hard time convincing Americans that makes sense — let alone Afghans. The military may yet ask for tens of thousands more troops, which would be a serious mistake.

To increase the odds for a more manageable transition and avert an economic collapse,the United States and other major donors have pledged $16 billion in economic aid through 2015. That is a commitment worth keeping, but the United States and its allies have tried nation building in Afghanistan, at least for the last four years. It is not working.


The task is to pack up without leaving behind arms that terrorists want and cannot easily find elsewhere (like Stinger missiles) or high-tech equipment (like Predator drones) that can be reverse engineered by Pakistan or other potential foes. The military can blow those things up if it must.

It is hard to be exact about a timetable since the Pentagon and NATO refuse to discuss it. The secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, told us last week that decisions about the timetable would be made after the military command reported to Mr. Obama in December. He would not say much of anything beyond that — whether the withdrawal would be front-loaded, or back-loaded, or how many troops would be needed to secure the election.

Some experts say a secure withdrawal would take at least six months, and possibly a year. But one year is a huge improvement over two. It would be one less year of having soldiers die or come home with wounds that are terrifying, physically and mentally.

Suicides among veterans and those in active service reached unacceptable levels long ago. A recent article by The Associated Press quoted studies estimating that 45 percent of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are claiming disability benefits. A quarter of those veterans — 300,000 to 400,000, depending on the study — say they suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is far too high a price to go on asking of troops and their families.

Four years ago, Mr. Obama called Afghanistan a “war we have to win.” His strategy relied on a newly trained Afghan Army and police force that could take over fighting the Taliban; a government competent to deliver basic services; and Pakistan’s cooperation. Here is what happened:

AFGHAN SECURITY FORCES NATO and the Pentagon built an Afghan Army and police force of nearly 352,000 that is now nominally in the lead for providing security in most of the country. Attrition rates are high and morale is low; the attacks on coalition forces have eroded trust and slowed the training. Afghan leaders have to work harder with Washington to weed out corrupt troops and Taliban infiltrators, but the nation cannot hang its hopes on that happening.

There is an agreement to finance the army to 2017 with Kabul paying $500 million, Washington about $2.5 billion and other donors about $1.3 billion. If Kabul keeps its commitments, the donors should make good on theirs.

The Taliban have not retaken territory they lost to coalition forces, but Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, the Taliban base and the main focus of the 2010 surge, remain heavily contested. A Pentagon report in May said Taliban attacks in Kandahar from last October through March rose by 13 percent over the same period a year earlier.

William Byrd, an Afghan expert at the United States Institute of Peace, said, “The most that probably can be hoped” is that the army continues to hold Kabul and other major cities. It is not likely to ever become an effective counterinsurgency force.

EFFECTIVE, CREDIBLE GOVERNANCE President Hamid Karzai’s weak and corrupt government, awash in billions of dollars, continues to alienate Afghans and make the Taliban an attractive alternative. Mr. Karzai recently chose Asadullah Khalid, a man accused of torture and drug trafficking, to take over the country’s main intelligence agency. Dozens of Karzai family members and allies have taken government jobs, pursued business interests or worked as contractors to the United States government.

A recent report by Afghanistan’s central bank said the Afghan political elite had been using Kabul Bank as a piggy bank. In 2010, word that the bank had lost $300 million caused a panic, and the number later tripled. To win pledges of continued aid at an international donors conference in July, President Karzai promised to crack down on corruption and make political reforms, but he has done little. The aid sustaining his government is at risk if he fails. We doubt that he will exercise real leadership. For now, he has proved himself to be not only unreliable, but a force undermining American goals and Afghans’ interests.

In 2009 and 2010, Mr. Karzai’s supporters tried to defraud the national elections. With elections scheduled for 2014, the question is whether Mr. Karzai will keep his vow to abide by the Constitution and leave when his term is up. He needs to make sure the Parliament and the government put in place an electoral system that encourages competent candidates to run and enables a broadly accepted election with international monitors. All sides are lagging. (There has been even less progress in restoring local governance, the bedrock of Afghan society, where the Taliban exert enduring influence.)

Mr. Obama wants to use American troops to provide logistical assistance and security at the elections. There were real threats to voters’ lives in the first post-Taliban elections, but the real threat to democracy is from corruption, not bombs. Mr. Karzai stole the last election, and he got away with it with American forces in place. After giving him 10 years and lots of money, things keep going in the wrong direction. Why would this now change?

RELATIONS WITH PAKISTAN After some bitter disputes, Pakistan began cooperating with the United States again in June by reopening a critical supply route to Afghanistan. American officials say the Pakistanis may have decided that sowing chaos in Afghanistan by supporting Taliban proxies is not in their interest after all. This could be wishful thinking. Last week, the Pentagon blamed the Pakistani-backed Haqqani network for some of the recent “green on blue” attacks. Islamabad’s collusion with the Taliban and other extremist groups is the biggest threat to Afghan stability.

The United States has a huge interest in a less destructive Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country of 170 million that supports jihad in Afghanistan, Kashmir and Indian cities. But there is reason to argue that America’s leverage with Pakistan on security matters is limited by its need for Pakistani bases, border crossings and intelligence on the Taliban.

If tens of thousands of American troops were removed from landlocked Afghanistan, that might actually allow the United States to hang tougher with Islamabad. Pakistan officials might not listen, but at least the United States could be more honest about what the Pakistanis were doing to worsen the threat of terrorism and insurgency.


We are not arguing that everything will work out well after the United States leaves Afghanistan. It will not. The Taliban will take over parts of the Pashtun south, where they will brutalize women and trample their rights. Warlords will go on stealing. Afghanistan will still be the world’s second-poorest country. Al Qaeda may make inroads, but since 9/11 it has established itself in Yemen and many other countries.

America’s global interests suffer when it is mired in unwinnable wars in distant regions. Dwight Eisenhower helped the country’s position in the world by leaving Korea; Richard Nixon by leaving Vietnam; President Obama by leaving Iraq.

None of these places became Jeffersonian democracies. But the United States was better off for leaving. Post-American Afghanistan is likely to be more presentable than North Korea, less presentable than Iraq and perhaps about the same as Vietnam. But it fits the same pattern of damaging stalemate. We need to exit as soon as we safely can.

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