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But given what Afghanistan spawned, given the Taliban’s record, given the terror that was unleashed when Mullah Omar and his ilk were left to their own devices, it’s difficult to believe that the best course of action is to declare victory and head for home.
If the U.S. and its NATO allies rush the timetable and quit Afghanistan without (1) weakening the Taliban insurgency to a level where it doesn’t threaten the central government and/or (2) building up government forces to a level where they can smother Taliban flare-ups, the result will be similar to what happened the last time the West abandoned Afghanistan. It pays to recall that after the defeat of the Red Army, Afghanistan was considered unimportant—and left to the Taliban and their fellow jihadists. Then came September 11, 2001.
To put a finer point on it, the notion that the Taliban are brutal, backward, thuggish killers who make common cause with the likes of al Qaeda simply because foreign troops are on Afghan territory is plainly not true. Before September 11, 2001, before the U.S. invasion of October 7, 2001, before the Obama administration’s truncated surge of 2009, before any foreign troops were on their soil, the Taliban were brutal, backward, thuggish killers who made common cause with the likes of al Qaeda. And today, sensing and seeing that the U.S. commitment is waning, they have gotten their second wind, not unlike a tired long-distance runner who glimpses the finish line.
The Brookings Institution’s Afghanistan Index underscores the growing strength of the Taliban and other groups waging war against the U.S. in Afghanistan:
- The Taliban insurgency represented some 3,200 fighters in 2004 but more than 30,000 by the end of 2010.
- Cross-border attacks by the Haqqani Network are up 500 percent.
- Haqqani Network IED attacks are up 20 percent.
- Assassinations have spiked from less than one per month to about 10 per month.
- There were 155 U.S. troops killed in 2008; there were 418 killed in 2011.
- The number of internal refugees has jumped from 150,000 to 352,000 in three years.
With statistics like these in mind, Sen. Joseph Lieberman offered a commonsense reaction to the administration’s plan to undercut its own withdrawal timetable:
“This change is not justified by facts on the ground. While we all share the goal of drawing down our military presence in Afghanistan, this should be driven by developments on the ground in Afghanistan, not by the whims of Washington.”
But the president is not going to be confused by the facts on the ground. He wants U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, and he wants to show the American people in this election year that he is “turning the page on a decade of war,” as he puts it.
According to Panetta, as the U.S. and NATO head for the exits, “a large civilian presence” will stay behind to keep things on track. Given that this is the very model the Obama administration is employing in Iraq—where 434 Iraqis have been killed since U.S. troops handed everything over to “a large civilian presence” 50 days ago—Panetta’s words are not particularly reassuring.
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