When President Barack Obama announced recently that he would freeze a planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, he explained that Afghanistan remained a dangerous place. At the same time, he emphasized that the timeline for withdrawal (most U.S. troops are to be out of Afghanistan by the end of next year) had not changed.
The delay in the drawing down of U.S. forces comes at a time when the president has been pressured to either get out of Afghanistan entirely or expand and extend our military presence there. The delay also has been accompanied by a similar debate in Iraq, where more than 3,000 U.S. troops remain.
Withdrawing from these two countries has brought to our attention just how hard it is for the U.S. to extricate itself from its military interventions. Indeed, most people -- even the smartest, most level-headed government officials and military experts -- find that doing so is agonizingly difficult and much more challenging than the original intervention.
My own experience with the question of withdrawal dates back to Vietnam. I entered Congress in the mid-1960s as a supporter of the war, but gradually changed my opinion. As my view of the war changed, I struggled, like many others did, with the question of pulling out our military presence. I now find it remarkable how many strong similarities exist between our nation's challenge in getting out of Vietnam and what we confront today in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The president's decision regarding troop withdrawal from Afghanistan represents just the latest chapter in the debate over the issue of how to withdraw. On one side of the debate are those who think we should pull out all military presence now to avoid any further losses in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been stationed since 2001 in our longest war. On the other side are those who want the U.S. to be even more deeply involved and not leave until Afghanistan is secure and stable. However, recent history has indicated our policymakers and perhaps the majority of Americans reject both of these options. For obvious reasons, we're unwilling to commit to an all-out war and decades of building a new nation. Yet we're also unwilling to cut and run in the hope that we can figure out a way to do so responsibly, honorably and with a sense of accomplishment.
Americans have, in recent years, been highly reluctant to add 'boots on the ground' in Afghanistan and Iraq, even when the situations there have worsened. This is understandable, of course, and so we search for ways short of supplying more combat troops. We've aggressively pursued responsible allies within and beyond the country to step in and assist us, focusing our efforts on "moderates" living in these and neighboring countries. Finding reliable partners has been, by itself, a formidable challenge. We've also been prepared to continue to offer military training, equipment and logistical and intelligence aid to the host country, all of which are important tools in any conflict. However, we've had an expensive and none-too-successful time trying to train and support other militaries, from the South Vietnamese fighters several decades ago to the current Afghan armed forces.
As we consider our limited options, we've continually gone through an agonizing debate to persuade ourselves that we've done the best we can in the countries we've occupied or invaded and that we've at least given them an opportunity to succeed. At the same time we've also maintained that there's no military solution, only a political one, in these countries and that war cannot be won on the battlefield. We used this language in Vietnam. And we use it today in our conversations about what to do in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"There are no good options," we say. I've heard this 100 times. "The situations in these places --Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan -- are way too complex for us to resolve."
Not long ago, I spoke to a top U.S. military commander who's served multiple tours of duty in Iraq, and he said to me, "Lee, we never understood this place." I found that to be a revealing comment.
Part of the problem we traditionally face is our failure to thoroughly examine the facts on the ground and our tendency to want to neatly divide the countries in which we've been engaged into good guys and bad guys when, in fact, we're dealing with multiple actors with varying allegiances, ideologies, agendas and long histories of involvement.
For years, we wrestled with the questions of whether the U.S. could bring about regime change and establish democracies in countries whose cultures and political histories suggested otherwise and what our long-term interests in those places should be. We now have a better understanding of the difficulties in building a nation. We are better at this than we once were, but my general sense is that Americans as a whole have decided that it's a bridge too far. We simply do not have the time, resources and talents to build democratic, prosperous, free nations everywhere.
My hope is that we will begin to go beyond the usual questions and tackle those that keep arising as we look to leave, such as:
• Who's going to lead these countries and what groups will remain 10 years from now? 20 years from now?
• What steps can we take to facilitate better -- and less corrupt -- governance in Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries that were never particularly well developed and with governments that haven't been able to meet the needs of the people?
• Can these countries be saved and at what cost? Will they help themselves?
• How can we use regional and international diplomacy -- whatever that truly means -- to step in and help us? Is the international community willing to put in the time, talent and resources to strengthen these nations and ensure their freedom? And how do you identify and build a capable, reliable ally?
• How many resources are we willing to invest to bring about security and stability in these two countries where violence and instability have unfortunately been the norm, and for how long?
• And as we withdraw forces from these two key countries, how do we retain some amount of influence in their respective regions?
These are obviously excruciatingly difficult questions to answer, and it's a temptation to focus on just one or two of aspects of their many layers. To succeed in our withdrawals we must address the totality of the complex issues that impact our ability to successfully remove forces in a highly responsible way. We have no choice but to do so. The bottom line is this: Before we go in, we had better understand how to get out and the challenges that getting out entail.
Lee H. Hamilton is Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Chairman, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.