Out of Afghanistan

President Obama told Congressional leaders on Tuesday that he would not substantially reduce American forces in Afghanistan or shift the mission to just hunting terrorists there, but he indicated that he remained undecided about the major troop buildup proposed by his commanding general.

-- October 6, 2009 New York Times

As President Barack Obama maps out a new course for the war in Afghanistan, it is important that he consider every option available to him. The President's apparent statement to the Congressional leadership that he is not considering a withdrawal of troops gives short shrift to the option that makes the most sense given the terrible choices he faces. Immediately initiating a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan is the best of several bad options because it allows us to focus on our most pressing national security interests in that region without needlessly risking the lives of American soldiers and deepening our national debt.

The Bush Administration entered the war in Afghanistan after the horrific attacks of 2001. At that time, there were two missions for the war: dismantling the Al Qaeda high command and training camps and creating a stable democratic government in Afghanistan that would ensure that the Taliban could not reassert itself.

Eight years later, many key Al Qaeda leaders have been killed and the leadership that remains has largely relocated to neighboring Pakistan. That mission largely has been accomplished.

The second mission of this war has not yet been achieved and it may be unachievable. Unlike Iraq, which was ruled with an iron fist out of Baghdad for decades, Afghanistan has never had a national government that has effectively ruled the diverse and spread out nation. A recent Brookings Institute study ranked Afghanistan second to last in the world (ahead of only Somalia) on a list that evaluated the relative strengths of nation states. Largely as a result of its weak central government, Afghanistan holds an infamous place throughout recent history for its ability to withstand invasions and control from outside nations.

In the present war, much of the success of the resistance can be attributed to the fact that the Taliban and the insurgency are fluid entities that can be driven out of towns and cities, only to reform later on. The ephemeral nature of the enemy in Afghanistan is unlikely to change in one year or five years.

Another obstacle to the second Bush Administration mission is the corrupt government of President Hamid Karzai. Again, the contrast with Iraq is fairly stark -- we all can recall the images of the Iraqi people with their purple fingers celebrating their newfound democracy. The recent elections in Afghanistan, by all objective accounts, were marked by voter intimidation and blatant fraud. Without a popularly supported government, it is extremely unlikely that the Karzai government ever will be able to exercise a level of control over the county that many failed governments before it were unable to exercise. And the prospect for calling President Karzai on his corruption and attempting to replace him with a leader elected in a U.S.-run popular election seems dicey as well.

Much has been made of the 66 page report prepared for President Obama by U.S. and NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal. The general's report concluded that without a substantial influx of forces from the current 68,000 to 108,000 troops in the next twelve months, the war in Afghanistan "will likely result in failure." The problem is that General McChrystal's report did not, and could not, provide any assurance that if we follow the report's recommendations, our troops will be able to create the stability in Afghanistan that would be the goal of such an approach. So if we follow the report's recommendations, there's a chance that five years from now, we will have suffered more casualties and billions of additional dollars in military spending without making any further progress. We should begin to get out now.

Instead of focusing on the goal of creating an effective government in Afghanistan, we should focus like a laser on tracking and destroying Al Qaeda. This focus will naturally lead us to Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan, which, at the moment, has a potentially lethal combination of an unstable government, Osama Bin Laden and several nuclear weapons. We should redouble our efforts in that country, using Predator drones where appropriate, to target Al Qaeda figures when we have good intelligence about their whereabouts. We also must continue to monitor Afghanistan to ensure that even where Taliban leaders are able to gain a foothold, they are unable to use Afghanistan as a staging ground for attacks abroad. Avoiding a nuclear attack should be our highest priority in the region and today, that threat is substantially more likely to come from Pakistan than it is from Afghanistan.

We also must take into account the tremendous costs in lost lives, lost limbs and the separation of military members from their loved ones, as well as the tremendous financial burdens associated with this war. We are still in the midst of the worst economic climate since the Great Depression. While our federal deficit has soared to levels unimaginable just a year ago, we have spent almost $200 billion on this war.

Of course, if a stable government in Afghanistan was essential to our national security interests, we would pay any price and bear any burden to accomplish that goal. But the truth of the matter is that it is not. It is time to wind down this war.