When Will We Really Leave Afghanistan, and Why Not Tomorrow?

Why would anyone think that Afghan forces will ever be combat ready and able to defend their own country against the Taliban?
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President Obama met with his NATO counterparts in Lisbon last week. According to the November 21 New York Times, they agreed "to the goal of a phased transfer of security responsibility to the Afghan government by the end of 2014, but NATO officials acknowledged that allied forces would remain in Afghanistan at least in a support role well beyond that date."

Further, if the Afghan army isn't ready by the end of 2014 to "manag[e] its own security, 2014 was not a hard and fast deadline for the end of combat operations." Why would anyone think that Afghan forces will ever be combat ready and able to defend their own country against the Taliban? Surely it is by now an unsolvable mystery why the Afghan military forces, trained for 9 years by U.S. and NATO troops, are currently unable to defend their country while the Taliban is capable of major successful strikes in Kabul, the capital, and apparently governs large parts of the country either by night when U.S. army patrols return to their bases, or 24 hours a day when U.S. forces don't dare enter the neighborhood.

We know that the Taliban is supplied with substantial funding from the local drug trade. We know that US officials, including in the White House, believe that the Afghan president's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is involved in drug trafficking.* We know that Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. We know that Iran regularly sends millions of dollars to President Karzai for his personal use. We know all of these things because the New York Times reporters day after day, week after week, year after year, have reported how the Karzai government has cooperated with the Taliban forces seeking to bring them into the Afghan government. Bizarrely, the U.S. government has cooperated with those efforts, while our soldiers die in the killing fields of Afghanistan.

In June of this year, the Wall Street Journal reported:

More than $3 billion in cash has been openly flown out of Kabul International Airport in the past three years, a sum so large that U.S. investigators believe top Afghan officials and their associates are sending billions of diverted U.S. aid and logistics dollars and drug money to financial safe havens abroad. The cash -- packed into suitcases, piled onto pallets and loaded into airplanes -- is declared and legal to move.

We also know that President Karzai endangers American and other NATO troops (we have about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan while the rest of NATO has 40,000) by demanding, according to the Times, "that the NATO led coalition stop carrying out night raids and limit airstrikes, which military commanders consider among their most effective tools but which have caused civilian casualties."

President Obama in response to Karzai's demands that the U.S. limit its military responses said, "If we're ponying up billions of dollars to ensure that President Karzai can continue to build and develop his country, then he's got to also pay attention to our concerns as well...He's got to understand that I've got a bunch of young men and women who are in a foreign country being shot at" and "need to protect themselves."

Nevertheless, despite his protestations, our young men and women continue to die to protect a corrupt government and country where many people hate us.

The Times reported on November 21 that "At a closed door meeting here, General David H. Petraeus, the top American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, set out his strategy for the transition, confirming that the kind of operations Mr. Karzai has criticized, including drone missile strikes and nighttime raids would continue aggressively."

If the Afghan government persists in denouncing and objecting to our tactics, I have no doubt that they, not we, will prevail. Our being in Afghanistan and the way we conduct ourselves is subject to their approval. We have said many times that we will leave Afghanistan whenever and if ever the Afghan government demands we do. Why should they ever demand we leave? We are their piñata. The U.S. obviously doesn't want to leave. To date, we have spend over $300 billion on the Afghan war and we have suffered 1,273 U.S. troop deaths. NATO has suffered 822 troop deaths. We have suffered over 7,000 combat injuries. Those injuries are the worst kind, coming primarily from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) roadside bombs, causing many amputations and brain injuries.

What do we have to show at this point for the bloodbath we have suffered and the billions we have expended? We are hindered in defending ourselves by a corrupt Afghan government with a particularly corrupt Afghan President playing a double game with our sworn enemy, Iran. The latter sees Afghanistan as a satellite tribal area to be bought not only with Iranian bribes, but also with religious and ethnic ties.

Afghans know that Iran will be there forever, while the U.S. will ultimately leave if not tomorrow, and not in 2014, sometime in the future when ultimately a now apparently lethargic American public finally wakes up and demands we leave. We would have left long ago were we still defended by a draft army instead of a volunteer army.

Surely, the combination of spilled blood with the expenditure of billions of dollars on the war in Afghanistan, when we are now contemplating reductions in Social Security benefits and educational funds for teaching our children, will cause the American public to rise up in wrath and say "No," with a mighty roar. The question of remaining in Afghanistan, while not even an issue in the 2010 election, will become one in the presidential election of 2012. Why this ongoing stupid war which cannot be won on the ground because there is nothing worth winning has not received the attention that it deserves from the American public is a conundrum. Nevertheless, the American public, even if at times it acts too slowly, will ultimately act. Getting out of Afghanistan now, not in 2014 or thereafter, is the right thing to do.

*Editor's Note: This line has been corrected to more accurately reflect reports regarding the allegations against Ahmed Wali Karzai.

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