The Obama administration raised eyebrows and tempers when it announced plans to speed up the withdrawal timetable for U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The puzzled reaction of one NATO official, who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity, typified what many allies felt about Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's surprise announcement. "He said the combat role will come to an end," the official observed, "but he also said combat will continue."
After more than a decade of war, the best way to clear up the confusion and find a way forward is to return to first principles. To do that, the American people should ask a series of questions about U.S. goals in Afghanistan. Here are some to prime the pump.
Has the mission been accomplished?
In Afghanistan, as in many wars in American history, the mission has evolved. It has been, at various junctures, to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, to cripple al-Qaida, to topple the Taliban, to install a friendly government, and to refashion Afghanistan into a functioning nation-state. The reason the mission evolved was understandable. After all, the Taliban and al-Qaida shared the same worldview and the same enemy. This symbiosis between the two groups explains why many observers argued that eradicating al-Qaida from Afghanistan was not enough to protect the United States – and also why the small-footprint war of late 2001 morphed into a large-scale nation-building operation in the decade after. To conclude that the mission should continue unchanged will carry a great cost, especially for those in uniform. To conclude that the mission should now end will call into question a decade of sacrifice. There is no easy answer to this conundrum. As the Roman historian Sallust observed, "War is easy to begin but difficult to stop." One reason this is true for Americans is that we don't want our sons and daughters to die in vain. That leads to another clarifying question:
Is it time simply to get U.S. forces out of harm's way?
The American military has sacrificed much for Afghanistan – more than 1,800 dead and 14,000 wounded. If this war was being waged solely for Afghanistan, it would be wrong to expect the troops to keep sacrificing for the Afghan people, many of whom seem to believe in their tribe rather than their country. But this war is being waged not to plant Jeffersonian democracy in Afghanistan, but rather to protect America. CIA Director David Petraeus hasn't forgotten. Exactly one year ago, when asked to make the case for staying the course, then-Gen. Petraeus bluntly replied, "Two words: Nine-Eleven," reminding us of what happened the last time the United States abandoned Afghanistan. "It would be a mistake, a big mistake, to go down that road again." Even though al-Qaida is a shell of its former self and Osama bin Laden is dead – both major victories in the post-9/11 campaign of campaigns – they represent only part of the problem, which leads to a third clarifying question:
Can Afghanistan be trusted to govern itself?
Afghanistan became the world headquarters for al-Qaida because the Taliban welcomed bin Laden with open arms. Given the terror that was unleashed when the Taliban was in power – and their brutality since being ousted from it – there's no reason to think that Mullah Omar and his henchmen have changed. That explains why the basic goal since 2008-2009 has been to weaken the Taliban insurgency to a level where it doesn't threaten the central government, and/or to build up Afghan forces to a level where they can hold back the Taliban. Regrettably, those objectives are not close to being met. In fact, the United States is holding talks with the Taliban, giving bin Laden's old friends new legitimacy. "Those talks won't bring stability," argues Amrullah Saleh, former head of Afghanistan's national security directorate. Instead, he fears that "now that the Taliban has guaranteed its basic survival, it will fight for domination." A leaked U.S. military report concludes that "Taliban commanders, along with rank-and-file members, increasingly believe their control of Afghanistan is inevitable." One reason for their confidence is the state of the Afghan army. Fresh from a tour of Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Daniel Davis describes Afghan troops as largely unwilling to engage the Taliban. According to a classified report leaked to The New York Times, one Afghan colonel describes his own troops as "thieves, liars and drug addicts." An American quoted in the report says Afghan troops are "pretty much gutless in combat; we do most of the fighting."
Does staying or leaving serve U.S. interests?
Intentional friendly-fire incidents on both sides – the recent Kandahar shooting massacre by a U.S. soldier, and 45 attacks by uniformed Afghan troops on U.S. and other NATO forces, killing 70 troops – underscore the corrosive effects of a decade of war.
Yet given the above litany, it seems that a complete withdrawal would not serve U.S. interests. The Times reports that plans are in the works to replace conventional forces with a "strike force" of Special Operations units that would "hunt insurgent leaders and train local troops." There's no doubt that Special Ops teams can track down and kill the enemy, but it's unlikely that such a force would be able to prop up the government in Kabul or prevent the Taliban from returning to power. One middle-ground option would be to use a smaller conventional force to focus on fortifying Kabul; unleash Special Ops units to hunt down Taliban leaders and prevent al-Qaida from reconstituting; and maintain a constellation of air bases capable of deploying manned and unmanned bombers to support Special Ops units and conduct operations against targets in Pakistan. It's a sad irony that Pakistan was once the jumping-off point for targeting terrorists in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan is now the jumping-off point for targeting terrorists in Pakistan – the nuclear basketcase that spawned the Taliban and harbored bin Laden.