After a decade of fighting it is easy to forget that America is still at war. But, in Afghanistan, combat operations are scheduled to continue for another year and a half. Even after the official 'end' to the war in December 2014, a number of American soldiers may remain in Afghanistan. Recent reports suggest that an agreement to keep American troops in Afghanistan may be imminent.
U.S. soldiers have fought hard and bravely for nearly twelve years. However, now it is time for President Obama to bring them home -- all of them.
Consider the troubling events that have occurred in 2013 alone. "Insider" attacks against American forces persist, while the insurgency continues to mount suicide attacks in Afghanistan's cities. The United Nations recently reported that civilian casualties are up 38 percent compared to the same time period last year, and the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office found insurgent attacks to be up 47 percent from last year. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has stopped releasing its own data on the war, after the Associated Press found the Pentagon to be manipulating data to falsely claim progress. It is clear that the American military strategy, embraced in 2009 by President Obama to force the Taliban to the negotiation table, has failed. Thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars have been wasted.
It is time to rethink the wisdom of maintaining an American footprint. Some stubbornly insist that U.S. soldiers must remain in Afghanistan to help promote stability. In fact, the reverse is true: the presence of foreign soldiers is actually furthering instability. The Karzai government is the weakest it has been politically since its inception, the insurgency is broader and stronger than at any point since 2001, and warlords once again control fiefdoms.
The presence of U.S. troops continues to provoke resentment among the population and helps the Taliban recruit people to its cause. Furthermore, the new government that will take over Afghanistan in 2014 will lose legitimacy if it is seen as playing host to an ongoing American occupation. It is crucial to establish a popularly supported government in Afghanistan and the U.S. military must recognize that its presence is detracting from, not promoting, that goal.
Another justification for keeping troops in Afghanistan is the training of the Afghan army. Building a modern army in an impoverished, politically fractured country is no easy task. The U.S. has attempted to create an American-style army that is not well suited to confront either the insurgency in Afghanistan, or -- more importantly -- the underlying political problems that foster the insurgency. Moreover, ethnic and cultural divisions, high rates of desertion, and a deep mistrust of its American partners hinder the Afghan army. It is unlikely that several more years of training by Americans, as well intentioned as they are, will do anything to change these conditions.
The problems do not end at Afghanistan's borders. In fact, the biggest obstacles to stability may be the constant friction between the U.S. and Afghanistan's neighbors, Pakistan and Iran. Both countries, under other circumstances, would have an interest in a peaceful, well-governed Afghanistan. However, as long as America maintains a presence on their borders, Pakistan and Iran will focus on undermining the U.S. -- by promoting instability in Afghanistan. Whether by sponsoring terrorist attacks or turning a blind eye to drug trade across the border, Pakistan and Iran are able and willing to undermine any security gains made by U.S. and Afghan forces.
The best hope for resolving this deadly stalemate is to take the United States out of the equation. It is time to admit our continued military role in Afghanistan is counter-productive and there is little reason to keep American men and women caught in the crossfire.
The U.S. government has made a number of costly mistakes in executing what has become the longest war in our history. President Obama can avoid making one final mistake. He should announce the U.S. has accomplished all it can hope to do militarily in Afghanistan and that no troops will remain there after December 31, 2014.
After almost twelve years of US war and occupation we owe it to the people of Afghanistan, and to the thousands of Americans still serving in harm's way, to get this one right.
This article first appeared on August 16, 2013 in the News & Observer and was proudly co-written with Usha Sahay, Director of Digital Outreach for the Council for a Livable World.