Why We Need to Leave Afghanistan

The current NATO-led campaign in Afghanistan has reached its ceiling of mission effectiveness. We need to welcome our troops home and provide the best support we can to Afghan citizens as they decide their future.
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In what surely marks the beginning of the end of American military involvement in Afghanistan, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered the much anticipated announcement that he intends to bring home 33,000 American troops from the war-torn country. While the Canadian military is already packing its bags, France, Britain, and Germany have also pledged to follow suit with plans to end their respective combat operations in the central Asian nation.

With Afghanistan's summer fighting season now heating up between NATO-led forces and the country's various insurgent groups -- and in a year that promises to be the deadliest in the war's decade long history -- observers might be excused for wondering why participant nations have decided that now is the right time for a troop withdrawal.

While no one wishes to confuse a drawdown with a draw, Taliban statements that troop reductions are merely symbolic, combined with recent admissions that the United States and its allies have been negotiating with Taliban leaders (with whom they are currently fighting), leave serious questions as to what has been achieved by this war and what can be expected as we move forward.

Notwithstanding a general desire to end war and to achieve sustainable resolutions to protracted conflict, President Obama is largely making good on a previous political promise to announce troop withdrawals by July of this year. While most agree with the move in principle, it is the speed, magnitude, and arbitrary schedule of the drawdown that worries several senior military commanders whose primary concern is ensuring that there is no reversal of the mission's hard-won gains and sacrifices.

As with most wars, the ebb and flow of the conflict has led to a series of adjustments with respect to the campaign's core objectives. From President George W. Bush's initial focus on permanently disrupting the Taliban (as a key pillar in the so-called Global War on Terror), to the type of grand nation-building experiment we've seen in the past several years, the goal posts marking mission success (and exit) have remained ill-defined.

As a result of this ambiguity, there are serious risks in withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, not the least of which could be the Taliban assuming official leadership positions within the new Afghan government. This scenario would see them take command of the new 350,000 member Afghan security force we've worked so diligently to train and arm. And yet, we are told that before any former Taliban member can be given the keys to the officers' mess, they must promise never to mix with Al Qaeda types. I'm sure Pakistan will serve as a good role model here.

Alas, it is for these very same reasons that the United States and its NATO partners are correct to begin withdrawing from combat operations. While much has been made of the cost savings that troop reductions will bring (it costs $1 million a year to keep a soldier in Afghanistan), the drawdown has much more to do with emerging strategic realities.

The death of Osama bin Laden and the stealthy mission that brought about his demise provided an enormous boost to small-footprint operations as an alternative means to combating violent extremists. Not only did the mission prove that the United States can "disrupt" global terrorists without flattening the nations in which they are hiding, but that it can do so without Pakistan's help - or its double dealing.

Regardless of Pakistan's internal intelligence struggles, the country remains highly motivated to ally with Afghanistan (and its future leaders) as a way of preventing India from gaining a strategic foothold along its Western frontier. Islamabad's concerns were underscored when India decided to build its new consulates, not in Kabul, but along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Pakistan's fear of encirclement has largely fuelled its willingness to unofficially oblige Afghan insurgents, who will remain a part of its world long after NATO is gone.

This reality is not easily remedied by any troop surge. It is far better served by the game-changing strategies now being proposed, which include continued coordinated military training, cooperative clandestine activities, drone movements, special operations forces, and strong diplomatic ties.

Additionally, while the troop surge has been heralded a success, its ability to improve the security situation in Afghanistan can be largely attributed to its kinetic attributes; that is, its ability to clear territory of Taliban. And yet, much of what will form a sustainable security situation in Afghanistan will be won, not on a cartographic plain, but on Afghanistan's human terrain.

Despite nearly $1 trillion having been spent on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest and most corrupt nations in the world. In 2010, it ranked 155 of 169 nations on the Human Development Index and 176 out of 178 on Transparency International's corruption index. And while Afghanistan has been receiving the most aid of any country in the world (since 2008), per capita spending on aid in the country remains half the amount spent (per capita) during Bosnia's post-war recovery. And yet the situation is complex. The fact that some $3 billion in aid money was skimmed by Afghan elites prior to it reaching those who needed it the most is a sorry testament to the country's extreme corruption and to the challenges that donor nations face.

These issues are not easily remedied by troop surges, which is why the timing is right to change course. While the geopolitical and domestic realities in Afghanistan call for continued engagement with respect to both security and development (and a good number of troops will remain to help facilitate these ends) the current NATO-led campaign has reached its ceiling of mission effectiveness. We need to welcome our troops home and provide the best support we can to Afghan citizens as they decide their future.

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