Afghanistan: A Case Study in How Much Easier It Is to Start a War Than to Finish One

We know that it's easier to start a war than to finish one -- and we are seeing a case study of this in Afghanistan despite the fact that there's a clear, widespread, and growing consensus on the value of us getting out.
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UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times is reporting that on Wednesday President Obama will announce the drawdown of 10,000 troops by the end of the year -- more than Gen. Petraeus and the Pentagon wanted, but less than 10 percent of the total U.S. forces there, and only a third of the additional 30,000 troops the president has sent to Afghanistan since 2009. Those troops wouldn't be brought home until early 2013 -- at which point 70,000 Americans would still be in Afghanistan. Hardly a substantial drawdown.

Original Post:

I'm in sun-and-creativity-soaked Cannes but can't stop thinking about Kabul -- specifically President Obama's looming announcement of how many, or how few, troops he is going to bring home from Afghanistan as part of his long-promised start to a complete withdrawal by 2014 (that's 13 years after the war began, for those keeping score at home).

We know that it's easier to start a war than to finish one -- and we are seeing a case study of this in Afghanistan despite the fact that there's a clear, widespread, and growing consensus on the value of us getting out. And the political environment could scarcely be more welcoming for the president to fulfill the pledge he made in December 2009 to "begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011."

And yet, even as we approach the mere announcement of the pullout, the pushback has begun -- an aggressive campaign designed to ensure that the number of troops the president brings home is as small as possible. So, will the number be some token amount, just enough to allow the president to say he kept his promise? Or will it be substantial, and more in keeping with the clear spirit -- not just the lawyerly letter -- of his pledge? We'll find out soon.

In the meantime, we can say with certainly which option the American people prefer. According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll taken this month, 62 percent of Americans now oppose the war in Afghanistan, while only 36 percent favor it. Seventy-four percent favor withdrawing all or some troops, with only 24 percent saying we should keep the same number or send more troops.

And while it's taken forever, this overwhelming consensus is finally beginning to be reflected in Washington. Earlier this month, 27 senators signed a letter to the president asking him to order a "sizable and sustained reduction" of troops this month. The effort was spearheaded by a bipartisan trio: Utah Republican Mike Lee, and Democrats Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Udall of New Mexico. Also signing on was Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky. "The costs of prolonging the war far outweigh the benefits," the letter states. "It is time for the United States to shift course in Afghanistan." It continues:

We urge you to follow through on the pledge you made to the American people to begin the redeployment of U.S. forces from Afghanistan this summer, and to do so in a manner that is sizable and sustained, and includes combat troops as well as logistical and support forces.

Adding more fuel to the fire, Delaware Senator Chris Coons, in an op-ed last week in Wilmington's News Journal, went past calling for a substantial redeployment and called for a substantial rethinking of our entire national security strategy. The beginning of the pullout in July, he wrote, should be "the beginning of a new, more targeted counter-terrorism strategy that more wisely focuses our military and diplomatic resources on defending America's security interests."

In an interview with HuffPost's Amanda Terkel, Coons elaborated: "I support our troops, I support our commander in chief... I just hear broad skepticism at home that another few years at 100,000 troops and more than $100 billion a year is going to change the outcome."

And there is growing skepticism among the GOP presidential hopefuls. At their recent debate in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney declared: "It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes from our generals.'' And Ron Paul pointed out that the president is, in fact, the commander in chief, and it's the generals who need to act "consistent with the word" that comes from him.

Then there was the resolution, passed Monday at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, calling for the money currently spent on Iraq and Afghanistan to be redirected to the cities here at home that are being devastated by massive budget cuts. "It is about our economy and it is about getting people back to work," said the president of the conference, Burnsville, Minn., Mayor Elizabeth Kautz. "It is about reinvesting in those efforts that will help us retain jobs and create jobs in our country."

The redirected money would help make up for what Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter calls the "Great Retreat" from local governments by the federal government. For years, those whose deceptions led to the war in Iraq and whose mismanagement left the mission in Afghanistan to stagnate used the phrase "cut and run" to scare off anybody who dared question their policies. But, in truth, the mind-boggling sums of taxpayer money -- past, present and future -- used to finance these wars has caused the federal government to "cut and run" from the economic crisis local governments and communities are facing here at home.

For an idea of what kind of impact the money spent in Iraq and Afghanistan could have here at home, check out the interactive tool put together by the National Priorities Project that lets you see what the opportunity cost of these two wars is for your community.

On a national level, more than $169 billion in taxpayer money will be spent on Iraq and Afghanistan this year. With that amount, one of the following could be provided:

  • 86.8 million low-income children receiving healthcare for one year
  • 21.7 million military veterans receiving VA medical care for one year
  • 2.6 million police or sheriff's patrol officers for one year
  • 2.6 million elementary school teachers for one year
  • 22.3 million Head Start slots for children for one year
  • 30.5 million students receiving Pell Grants of5,550

So when you hear about how all the cuts to social services -- and all the "shared sacrifice" (that somehow seems to be shared mostly by the poor and middle class) -- are necessary because "we're broke," remember these numbers.

Against this backdrop, as the deadline looms, the pushback parade has grown louder. Secretary of Defense Gates made the Sunday talk show rounds, and, as HuffPost's Zach Carter put it, "implied that a call from Sen. Carl Levin to reduce troop levels by 15,000 by the year's end may not be feasible." Appearing on CNN's State of the Union, the secretary said that "we can do anything the president tells us to do, the question is whether it is wise."

I'm clearly all for wisdom, and I'm glad Gates is spotlighting it as a key component of good decision making, but I have to wonder about his embrace of this long-forgotten quality almost 10 years down the Afghanistan road. Where was the call for wisdom when Gates' former boss decided to focus on Iraq and let the Afghanistan mission creep? If more people in Washington had called for "wise" decisions then, there would be no need for Obama to make a decision now.

Over on ABC's This Week, John McCain was doing his part in the pushback offensive, saying he preferred "modest" troop reductions (in the 5,000 to 10,000 range). He also decided to take a shot at his fellow Republicans, including Michele Bachmann, who had expressed doubts during the New Hampshire debate about the third war we've got brewing in Libya. "This is isolationism," McCain said.

So, wanting to wind down an almost 10-year war that nobody can come up with a compelling reason for continuing, or expressing doubts about hastily starting a new one without Congressional authorization, is now "isolationist"?

In reality, there is a sizable space between isolationism and favoring troop reductions substantial enough to ensure that this is truly the beginning of the end and not just another exercise in kicking the can down the road. And in that sizable space, you'll find common sense -- as well as the majority of the American people.

President Obama should ignore the pushback peanut gallery and stick to his promise to begin bringing our troops home next month. For real -- no token drawdowns.

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