|Trying to leave Afghanistan proves to be as troublesome as being there: A Closer Look
| Cliff Pinckard
It's been nearly 11 years since U.S. and allied troops arrived in Afghanistan to take on al-Qaida and the Taliban. It's the longest war in U.S. history, exceeding Vietnam (8.4 years), the Revolutionary War (8.4 years), the Civil War (four years), World War II (3.7 years) and World War I (1.6 years).
That's a long time. It's not over, either.
The United States currently is removing the last of the "surge" troops. But about 68,000 U.S. troops, along with NATO allies, remain in the country, and the plan is to hand over security to the Afghans by 2014.
You'll struggle to find someone who expects a smooth transition.
Afghanistan remains a turmoil-filled country, and it's not helping that allied troops increasingly are being attacked by Afghan soldiers they helped train. This week, coalition troops announced they were reducing the number of joint operations with Afghans because of the surge in "green on blue" attacks. Also, while President Obama's 2009 surge had some initial battlefield success, it's questionable whether its goals were achieved. However, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calls the surge a success (The Nation):
The intended purpose of the surge was "to buy us some time to push back on some Taliban initiatives -- particularly in the south and southwest -- and to buy us some space to grow the Afghan security forces," Dempsey said. That objective clearly has been met, he added. "During the surge, we grew the Afghan security forces by more than 50,000," Dempsey said. Afghan soldiers and police now number about 340,000, and the Afghans are in the lead in providing security in most of the country. Afghan forces will grow to 352,000 soon. Surge forces allowed to coalition to stop, and then to reverse, momentum the Taliban had established, the chairman said. "The surge had its intended effect," Dempsey added. "I think it was an effort that was worth the cost -- and don't forget, it did have its cost. But I think it will prove, as we look back on it, to have set the conditions necessary for us to achieve the objectives by the end of 2014."
Not many share Dempsey's optimism. The editors of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette argue that allied strategies have not worked in Afghanistan and it's time to withdraw all U.S. troops:
U.S. troops have had difficulty working with Afghan security forces. Some of that could be due to cultural differences, which in principle could be overcome. That is unlikely, however. American soldiers are trained to fight effectively, not work shoulder-to-shoulder with people who are extremely different from them, speak a different language and may well hate them. The effort to train and work with Afghan forces comes against a backdrop of Afghan casualties from U.S. drone attacks, human rights violations and the other U.S. problems in the Islamic world. Full withdrawal should be speeded up from 2014 to 2013. The United States has done all it can and needs to leave.
Why not leave now? That's the question the Christian Science Monitor asks (and the paper isn't alone). The war is costly, in lives and money:
One American is killed every day in Afghanistan, on average, this year. In a time of budget-cutting, the U.S. treasury spends $60 billion a month on the war. On an annual basis, that's enough to buy groceries for every American family for more than a year and a half. "At some level, when you make a decision to continue waging a war, losing lives and money, you make a decision that hopefully what you can get in exchange for that is worth it," says Stephen Biddle, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a former adviser to retired Gen. David Petraeus. "At some point it will reach the point where what we get is no longer worth American lives."
Shashank Josi of the London Telegraph reports that things will get "messy" in Afghanistan if allied troops withdraw. But he says it's doubtful that keeping troops in the country would make a difference:
Tim Foxley, who has worked for the British and Swedish defense ministries on Afghanistan, predicts that "a messy, unresolved stalemate - government controlling cities and most communications routes with insurgents and militias dominating less accessible regions - looks to be the most likely outcome." None of this necessarily means that Britain is wrong to withdraw. Special forces, including those from Britain, will continue to target the residual al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan and across the border in Afghanistan. Some sort of training mission will continue long after 2014. And, despite what critics of Barack Obama argue, it's not as if staying for another couple of years, or even another decade, would magically transform the fundamental problems that plague the Afghan government and state.
Despite dire predictions and the enduring state of war, Anthony Cordesman, an Afghanistan analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues it might not be a strategic advantage to leave now (Christian Science Monitor):
With a focus on tamping down corruption and with a couple more years work with the Afghan national security forces, "I think what you can accomplish is a reasonable chance that the Afghan government and economy can hold together" with "some chance of a coherent structure in Kabul, and a reasonable chance that the Afghan Army can be strong enough that, with some cooperation, it can hold insurgent forces at bay," Cordesman says. "Can we guarantee a future? No. ... However, "We can create a situation where we can show the world that we were not defeated," he says, and at the same time avoid a decision that would "deprive Afghanistan of any chance of stability. There's a very real difference between simply running for the exits and leaving in a way that provides some chance of structure and order."