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Afghanistan: Fight or Turn out the Lights

When Christiane Amanpour held up the cover of Time magazine on ABC News' This Week, Nancy Pelosi averted her eyes at the sight of an otherwise beautiful Afghan girl missing her nose and ears.

The iconic photograph is an excellent starting point for any discussion of America's exit strategy for Afghanistan. Who of us is ready to turn that country back over to the thugs who did that? Or can it be argued the photo presents us with a false choice?

Afghanistan is not and never has been a war about morality. The struggle there won't ever amount to an American "victory," but Afghanistan can still be a nation with dignity and a modicum of stability.

I supported the president when he said in 2008 that the crucial front in the war on terror was South Asia. I also believe two years later -- that based upon a stated 2011 commencement for a drawdown -- Americans should stop whining and support the U.S. military and humanitarian mission to help finish the job in Afghanistan.

At the most crucial stage of the war, I watched when a handful of U.S. forces had Osama bin Laden where they wanted him -- cowering in a cave at Tora Bora. Our leaders inexplicably lost the courage to close the deal with U.S. ground troops to block the mountain passes. The CIA's Gary Berntsen -- who is now running as a Republican for the U.S. Senate in New York -- contends to this day that his urgent request to inject 800 ground troops into the battle was rejected by President George W. Bush and his security team. "The President did not ignore my request," Mr. Berntsen explained to me Monday morning. "He simply went with Cheney and Rumsfeld who did not understand the realities of the ground."

Never mind the monumental blunder: The United States declared "victory" and our leaders began to plan for the invasion of Iraq, a country that harbored no al Qaeda fighters at the time.

America's best and brightest Special Forces -- the only troops already properly trained to implement genuine counterinsurgency -- were airlifted out of the Afghan theater. An Afghan stabilization effort that could well have succeeded after five years never materialized.

For years the war was fought on an ad hoc basis with a focus on the zero-sum targeting of insurgent leaders -- mostly in night raids that produced an inordinate number of civilian casualties. The Taliban and their allies, whose fighters kill (and maim) far more civilians today than do NATO or Afghan forces combined, crept back from Pakistan and stepped up a propaganda war.

From 2006 to 2009, insurgents seized control of vast swaths of the countryside through threats and intimidation.

Modern wars are as much about public support as they are about perception and deception. Most Americans now oppose the war.

But lest liberal and peace-loving Americans be overly-anxious to turn out the lights in Afghanistan and South Asia, a region that the current commander-in-chief made a centerpiece of his election victory in 2008, they should consider the dire consequences.

If we pick up and leave now, President Obama will forever be mocked and pilloried as weak on terror, particularly by those across the aisle. There is some astounding irony here. Recall that this is the same party whose leader, Michael Steele, recently accused Obama of wanting "to be cute by half by flipping the script - demonizing Iraq -- while saying the battle really should be in Afghanistan." Nevertheless, a withdrawal and a rapid collapse of the Karzai regime is likely to doom Obama's already waning re-election chances in 2012. The chicken hawks are waiting in the wings.

Regardless, there are far better reasons than politics to stick to a 2011 drawdown date and allow General David Petraeus to finish the job in Afghanistan.

Jihadists are flush with hidden cells and new recruits across the globe. If and when we turn our backs on Afghanistan, their minions will holler, "Allahu Akhbar, America has surrendered!" That would be a sad legacy and one that would undoubtedly abet bin Laden's global recruiting efforts.

Those who oppose the war and want to leave now argue Afghanistan has never been conquered. Agreed: Alexander the Great, the British and the Soviets found that out the hard way. But this is a red herring. Neither the administration nor the Pentagon's top brass intend to "conquer" Afghanistan or occupy it indefinitely.

Of course, Afghanistan is corrupt and the government there does not lend itself as a good partner with which to implement our exit strategy. But I can't recall any ideal partners for peace during the five years I spent covering wars in the Balkans either -- and that was in Europe.

As President Obama said Sunday, "Nobody thinks that Afghanistan is going to be a model Jeffersonian democracy."

Indeed, the Afghans already have a pseudo-democratic community-based means of governing themselves and resolving disputes. As we critique them for the chaos that has erupted in their country, (which is very much our own doing,) it is important to remember that this is a country with a proud heritage and a rich civilization. These folks don't need to be taught by condescending western experts to fight for their own rights.

So maybe when we consider the sad photograph of the young lady who graces the cover of Time, we should not avert our eyes. Rather, we -- as a nation -- should think rationally about what the Afghans, who sacrificed hundreds of thousands in the name of our victory in the Cold War, want for themselves this time around.

While we do that, we can chew over what happened the last time we abandoned Afghanistan.

The war is ugly. But the level of violence in Afghanistan is nowhere near the level of violence in the war against the Soviets or -- for that matter -- the Vietnam War. President Barack Hussein Obama is no Lyndon Baines Johnson.

In contrast to the plummeting hopes for Afghanistan stateside, Afghans still overwhelmingly favor our continued presence -- at least for now and probably for a few more crucial years. They also despise the brutality of the Taliban and their allies.

The Afghans I know are wary that it has taken so many decades and so many ill-conceived strategies, but they still hope to live in a stable country -- free of an occupation and free of Taliban oppression. America owes them one last fighting chance.