Almost ten years ago, a small American-led force overthrew the Taliban government of Afghanistan. The invasion had been fast, that Afghan government had been weak, and you could have been tempted in 2002 -- before the ashes in lower Manhattan had cooled or the Pentagon had been rebuilt -- to hope that the allied commitment wouldn't be too long.
In just a few weeks, the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks will come and go, and American and NATO forces, along with Australians and others, will still be on the ground in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda-associated fighters, remnants of Taliban forces, and other fighters who've opposed the invasion and its aftermath have never surrendered. They continue to use non-conventional warfare to launch attacks in public places, killing soldiers and civilians. In fact, when you look at civilian deaths in Afghanistan last year you find, for all the complaints about NATO drones and heavy-handed allied soldiering, more than 80% of all civilian deaths are caused by anti-government, anti-American, insurgent fighters.
Instead of winding down in its death toll, last year was the bloodiest year of the war, taking as many American lives as 2001-04 combined. That has people across America -- and Britain, Germany, Canada, and many other countries -- asking, "How do you know a war is over, and how do you know when it's time to come home?"
That conversation, sparked again by the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the President's announcement of a drawdown of forces, and a financial crisis, has taken on greater urgency. The United States has been in Afghanistan a long time. Thousands of American lives have been lost, billions of dollars spent, to make Afghanistan a place that would no longer become dangerous and unstable, a threat to its neighbors and countries around the world. There has been an elected government for years, weak and corrupt as it is accused of being it is certainly more representative of all the factional and ethnic divisions in Afghanistan than the Taliban had been.
Hold on though... In September 2001, the United States was attacked by an enemy that had been given safe haven by the Taliban government of Afghanistan. A few months later, Afghanistan was invaded, a new government installed, the Taliban put to flight, al Qaeda neutralized and put under intense pressure, and at long last, its leader killed in Pakistan. The United States and its allies have accomplished their war aims, right? Unless the new goal is some unachievable set of short-term targets, goes one side of the current debate, you can get out now and let Afghans do the rest.
No way, not yet, the other side chimes in. The Taliban are still inflicting horrible casualties on civilians and soldiers, taking their mayhem and death right into the heart of Kabul, the Afghan capital. While the steady killing of Taliban and al Qaeda elements has driven some of their members to reconcile with the new political system, there are hard-core resisters who will never agree to come into the political system. As with some of the South American insurgencies, there are elements of the Afghan resistance that have shifted to criminality as a way of life... smuggling, armed robbery, the drug trade filling the coffers of armed groups that terrorize civilians then melt into the vast countryside. Leave now, they say, and the United States runs the real risk of losing all the gains its made in the last ten years in Afghanistan. Without the steadying hands (and billions of aid) coming from the United States and its allies, goes the argument, there is a real risk that the thousands of soldiers who have died trying to free Afghanistan from its recent history will have died to accomplish nothing there.
The people who make both sets of arguments both have facts on their side. Neither is operating out of some political fantasy where you shape the arguments and the facts to fit the desired outcome. It is true that Afghanistan is in many ways a better place than it was before the invasion. It is true that the United States has spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives to establish a corrupt, shaky, government in Kabul protected by security forces that flee in battle and disappear and head home when they feel the need to leave duty. It is true that al Qaeda has been reduced in its capacity to unleash attacks around the world, and true that people willing to kill people by killing themselves are still available.
So maybe the economic argument is the clincher. Perhaps the prospect of fighting in Afghanistan for years to come with borrowed money is so unattractive that some who were ready to double-down in the war will instead pronounce the Afghan rehab "good enough." And there are plenty of Americans ready to agree it seems. There is a steady shift in the polls toward war-weariness and readiness to withdraw faster than the President has in mind. Like right now. An elected government, dead Osama, an exhausted military and endless bills have them ready to cry "uncle" and bring the forces home.
This week's HITN's Destination Casa Blanca featured a debate over how, and when to get out of Afghanistan. Listen to excerpts of the program at www.hitn.tv/dcb and add your own comments, and your own wish list for Afghan withdrawal. Have we finished the job? Or, despite the cost, sacrifice, and pain of continued war is their no choice but to keep on standing up a new country? I look forward to reading what you have to say.