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“War,” as the Roman historian Sallust once observed, “is easy to begin but difficult to stop.” Americans know this to be true because they have lived it in places like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan.
For good or ill, after nearly 10 years of war, the table is being set for President Barack Obama to declare victory in Afghanistan and pull the troops out.
“By us killing Osama bin Laden, getting al Qaeda back on its heels, stabilizing much of the country in Afghanistan so that the Taliban can’t take it over,” he said in a recent interview, “it’s now time for us to recognize that we’ve accomplished a big chunk of our mission and that it’s time for Afghans to take more responsibility.”
This is what Obama had in mind in late 2009, when he authorized the Afghan surge and concluded that “it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” before promising that “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”
Those 18 months will have come and gone in July. Setting aside the bizarre notion that America’s “vital national interest” has an expiration date, the real question, it seems, is not whether or not “it’s time for Afghans to take more responsibility” but this: are Afghans capable of taking on more responsibility, capable of maintaining the institutions we have built to resist the impulses to jihadism, and if not, does staying the course serve America’s interests or does withdrawing?
Reasonable people can and do disagree about the answer to that multifaceted question.
On one side, there is growing sentiment in the White House and Congress to bring the troops home. Sen. Carl Levin, for instance, wants to withdraw at least 15,000 troops by the end of this year. This is a reflection of public sentiment. A recent CNN poll reveals that 58 percent of Americans oppose the war, and 54 percent think the U.S. should no longer be involved in Afghanistan.
It’s no wonder why the American people have tired of the war. With more than 1,580 American troops killed, $444 billion spent and nearly a decade of commitment fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, America has already made an enormous sacrifice. Moreover, many Americans simply don’t think this counterinsurgency can be won.
On the other side, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, wants to press the initiative. He recently reported that ISAF has “inflicted enormous losses on mid-level Taliban…and taken away some of their most important safe havens” and that standing up new Afghan army units and creation of the Afghan Local Police is reintegrating “reconcilable insurgents” back into society, much like the Sons of Iraq program did during the surge he led in Iraq.
Petraeus said last week that progress against the Taliban and other insurgent groups is “fragile” and “reversible.” “We want to ensure that Afghanistan does not become, again, a safe haven in which [al Qaeda] might plot attacks such as those of 9/11…The only way to achieve that mission, of course, is to help our Afghan partners to enable them to develop the ability over time to secure and govern themselves.”
Likewise, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that “if we keep this momentum up, we will deliver a decisive blow to the enemy and turn the corner on this conflict.” The operative phrase from Gates’ perspective is “if we keep this momentum up.” As Defense News notes, Gates finds himself “sparring at a distance with White House aides who are pushing for a faster drawdown of the 100,000-strong U.S. force.”
Incoming Pentagon chief Leon Panetta seems to share Gates’ view, arguing at a confirmation hearing that “to be able to finish the job, we’ve got to keep the pressure up.”
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