Exiting Afghanistan

April 1, 2012
The war in Afghanistan is an uphill struggle. More than 10 years after the US invasion, the war is as violent as ever. The enemy now is the Taliban, which harbored al Qaeda until 2001 and brutalized the Afghan population then as today.

Some 1,900 US troops have died in Operation Enduring Freedom over the past decade, the vast majority of them on Afghan soil. Nearly 500 American deaths have come in the past year, and the mission costs the US $10 billion every month.

In the United States, Enduring Freedom has long been portrayed as the “good war,” but the people of Afghanistan do not fully agree with that assessment. Tension between the Afghans and the US and NATO forces in their country are at an all-time high.

The US, NATO, and international organizations have been working to improve Afghanistan’s future for a decade now. They have protected Afghan citizens at tremendous human cost, built schools, bridges, and other critical infrastructure, and poured billions of dollars into the country. Despite this, vast swathes of Afghanistan’s population view the Westerners with suspicion, hostility, and outright hatred.

In February, US troops at Bagram Air Base inadvertently burned several Korans seized from prisoners. The Korans were confiscated because they had been marked up with extremist messages, but were mistakenly hauled away as trash. The Afghan contractors who discovered the partially burned Korans in the base’s burn pit promptly took them off base and began a violent protest.

This desecration of the Muslim holy book was a major mistake, but was an accident and not a deliberate affront to Islam or the Afghan people. President Obama quickly apologized.

Outrage immediately spread around Afghanistan, and 30 Afghans and six Americans were soon killed in a series of reprisal attacks. Two of the US troops were reportedly shot in the back of their heads by Afghan security forces as the Americans sat at their desks in an Afghan ministry.

It gets even worse, unfortunately, and the US is not without blame.

In March, an Army sergeant allegedly went on a reprehensible killing spree. He murdered 16 innocent Afghan civilians, including nine children and three women, then set some of the bodies on fire.

This was almost certainly the work of a lone psychopath, but every tragedy like this reaches far beyond those immediately affected. The Taliban now have two new events tailor-made for their false narrative: the story that the US is an occupying force out to destroy Islam. US officials have long acknowledged they cannot “kill their way to victory,” but the US is clearly not winning the battle for hearts and minds either.

The Taliban has had little trouble recruiting generation after generation of insurgents over the past decade. Part of the responsibility for this must be borne by the Afghan people. The Taliban mercilessly ruled Afghanistan for five years, destroyed education, women’s rights, and the economy and imposed the world’s harshest Islamic sharia law. Since the US and NATO arrived, the Taliban has waged a nonstop terror and intimidation campaign and has caused the vast majority of all civilian injuries and deaths.

Despite all this, the Afghan people never fully turned on the Taliban or forced them from the country.

The US and NATO cannot provide freedom and security to the Afghan people if they are not willing to be equal partners in the effort. Ultimately, Afghanistan must decide whether it favors peace or extremism. The two cannot exist side by side.

Large US ground forces have worn out their welcome. They present tempting targets for insurgents and cede many advantages to the enemy in combat. America’s greatest military advantages lie elsewhere, such as in dominant airpower and surveillance and reconnaissance systems.

The administration has already announced plans to transition to an advise-and-train role next year and to withdraw the vast majority of US forces by the end of 2014. A force of 100,000 American troops at the end of 2011 will decline to 68,000 this fall.

The US has tried to prepare Afghanistan’s security forces to take over defensive responsibilities when the bulk of the Western forces leave.

Afghan forces may not be ready by the end of this year. They may not be ready by the end of 2014. They may never be ready—and it is hard to discern exactly what will be accomplished in year 13 of this effort. A deadline may ultimately be what compels the Afghan security forces to step up to their responsibilities.

It is time for the administration to seriously re-evaluate what the US can accomplish in Afghanistan. The bulk of the regular combat forces should be brought home as soon as possible—the troops are leaving regardless, and the quicker they depart, the fewer American lives will be lost.

The US cannot remain heavily committed in Afghanistan simply because the Taliban have not been completely wiped out or because terrorists may return. Responding to every worst-case “what if” scenario would suck the US into endless wars in an ever-expanding number of locations. It is much wiser to remain vigilant and strategically target true threats to the United States.

Enduring Freedom’s original goals have been accomplished: Afghanistan is as secure as it will get for the foreseeable future; the al Qaeda terrorists and Osama bin Laden are dead or on the run; the Taliban are out of power. The US does not need tens of thousands of regular ground troops in Afghanistan to protect what it has accomplished.

A much-smaller contingent of special operations forces and intelligence experts, backstopped by airpower, is a better long-term mix for Afghanistan. Special operators, remotely piloted aircraft, Air Force mobility and strike assets, and good intelligence can help Afghanistan’s government keep the Taliban on the run and monitor and kill terrorists.

For the United States, a large conventional force in Afghanistan has become counterproductive.