The accelerated withdrawal still needs the approval of our NATO partners, which hardly seems a problem because most of them are more eager to leave than we are. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, incensed about two recent incidents in which Afghan soldiers turned on and killed a total of six French trainers, announced last week that he would pull out his troops in 2013 — a year early.
The decision must still be agreed on at a NATO summit this May in Chicago, but that seems little more than a formality.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan have already been reduced from 100,000 to 90,000, and another 22,000 are due home this fall. For those who see this announcement in an election-year political context, that means we will have a robust force on the ground through the November election should major fighting be required.
The role of most of the remaining 68,000 U.S. forces would be to support and train Afghan soldiers, but leave any fighting to them. Washington would be willing to leave beyond 2014 a residual force to provide air power, logistics, supplies and training, but that would require permission from the Afghan government. The Iraqi government said no to a similar offer, and we were out by the end of last year, except for a small force to help guard the U.S. embassy.
The Obama administration’s numerous critics say it erred in proposing this revised date, that this only encourages Taliban forces — who, depending on which intelligence estimate you read, either are or are not on the run — to hold out.
But this ignores an obvious fact: The Taliban live there. They may hide out in Pakistan and the drones may have taken a terrible toll on their leadership, but they have always known that sooner or later we would leave. It was a simple matter of hiding the AK-47 and picking up a hoe until we did.
In the barest terms, we have accomplished our basic objectives. Osama bin Laden and his top aides are dead. Al-Qaida has been crushed. The Afghan government that gave the 9/11 plotters sanctuary has been routed and dispersed, and its leader, Mullah Omar, dare not emerge from hiding in Pakistan, even after we leave.
There is the question of what we leave behind. As in Iraq, the government we leave behind was better than the dictatorship we found. But Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that our ability to establish democracies in ethnically divided countries with no history of democracy is limited. Moreover, the war is a reminder that nation-building should not be a primary function of our military, especially when there is little political will behind it. And without that will, and with no commitment in the White House and on Capitol Hill to give the war the resources needed to win it, there is no point in continuing the half-hearted effort we have been making, at the cost of too many brave lives.
In the end, it is the Afghans’ country. We wish them well; we will try to help them as best we can. How they choose to live is up to them. But they need to be aware: Don’t let your houseguests attack us again.