A slow withdrawal

The plan President Barack Obama announced Wednesday for withdrawing 30,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan is a political tightrope act. He has Democrats on the left angry because he is not withdrawing quickly enough, while many Republicans and military leaders fear the president’s schedule is too hasty.

But Obama’s plan is a reasonable attempt to remove many of our military from a dangerous and probably unwinnable conflict.

The president’s plan is to withdraw 10,000 of the 30,000 troops sent during the 2009 surge from Afghanistan by the end of this year. The remaining 23,000 are to be out by the end of next summer. Other U.S. troops there are supposed to be out of the country by 2014, but could leave earlier. We hope they will.

The 10 years of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan have cost taxpayers $500 billion. Worse, more than 1,600 American military personnel have died there in the past decade.

Such terrible costs must be weighed against the need to protect this country. Defense is why we sent troops into Afghanistan in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2011. The Taliban-ruled country served as an operating base for the al-Qaida terrorists who attacked America.

But since the Taliban were driven from power, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has appeared confused and uncertain.

Was it to capture or kill Osama bin Laden? At times, that appeared to be a priority. Other times, it seemed only political rhetoric as we focused our military efforts elsewhere. In any event, that goal was accomplished by Navy SEALs last month.

Was the mission to establish a stable government? That’s far from a done deal. Taliban simply move in and out of isolated areas in response to U.S. military presence. Residents of those areas shift loyalty when it’s convenient, as they have for thousands of years.

Meanwhile, the Karzai government, which controls little more than capital of Kabul, is corrupt and increasingly antagonistic toward our military presence there.

Was the goal to train enough Afghan police and military so the country can protect itself? That becomes more doubtful each day.

Given all of that, some of Obama’s statements Wednesday struck a sour note. “We take comfort in knowing the tide of war is receding,” he said. “And even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance.”

Really? U.S. military deaths have increased. The Taliban have rejected overtures for peace negotiations, a sign they don’t feel threatened. Pakistan is more belligerent toward the United States and friendly toward the Taliban than ever. And no one can say with certainty what a “secure peace” will look like in Afghanistan.

Protecting the United States from future terrorist attacks remains critical. But massive numbers of boots on the ground in Afghanistan may not be the best way of accomplishing that. In that regard, we think moving Gen. David Petraeus to the top spot in the CIA is a great move. He understands the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, and has expressed an interest in more surgical strikes using drone aircraft and small, highly trained forces like the SEALs to eliminate terrorist threats.

That makes far more sense than continuing to commit tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel to a dangerous country with few clear-cut objectives and no end game in sight.

President Obama’s plan for removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan is a positive move toward ending that untenable situation, even if we would prefer the withdrawal move a little faster than he has proposed.


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