Commentary: Time to cut our losses in Afghanistan

The Kansas City StarMarch 22, 2012 

During his campaign, President Obama pledged a revitalized effort in Afghanistan. That was the war that mattered, he said; President George W. Bush took his eye off the ball when he invaded Iraq.

But Obama’s handling of the war has shown that to him it had less to do with national security than with politics. Initially, the war provided a way to criticize the outgoing administration. But after Obama became president, Afghanistan was no longer a rhetorical tool. It was a problem. The New York Times recently reported that many in the White House believe the U.S. mission “has now reached the point of diminishing returns.”

After more than 10 years, it may well be time to cut our losses — especially after the disastrous events of recent weeks: a video purportedly showing Marines urinating on Taliban corpses; the lethal riots that erupted after the mistaken burning of Qur’ans, and last week’s rampage by an Army staff sergeant, accused of killing 16 civilians as they slept.

Adding to the sense of disarray, Afghan President Hamid Karzai now demands that coalition troops leave the villages and pull back to their bases. A great deal of trust has been lost on both sides.

We’ll never know whether more was achievable in Afghanistan. Obama’s handling of the war was freighted with ambivalence from the beginning, and that contributed to a muddled policy that pleased no one. One sign came last week, when his war policy drew fire not only from the conservative Wall Street Journal but from the normally friendly Washington Post.

Obama may have promised a renewed effort in Afghanistan, The Post said, but his actions have sent the opposite message. He terminated regular communication with Karzai. He imposed arbitrary deadlines for troop withdrawals. Karzai was publicly disparaged by administration officials. Obama has even insisted on the withdrawal of the surge troops by this summer — before the end of this year’s fighting season.

Admittedly, the mission may have been impossible, if you define it as an effort to lend some sort of political coherence to a country divided not only by forbidding terrain but by tribal and ethnic hatreds.

The whole enterprise evokes a troubling parallel with Vietnam. In both wars, the enemy was sustained by cross-border sanctuaries and infiltration.

The Taliban can withdraw to bases in Pakistan and fight at a time and place of its choosing, just as the North Vietnamese Army relied on bases in Laos and Cambodia. If you can’t or won’t stop the infiltration, you can’t gain the initiative.

In Afghanistan, you have the additional challenges of corruption and the drug trade, the latter of which is a major prop for the Taliban. If you don’t have a strategy for those problems, asserts John Pike of Globalsecurity.org, you don’t have a strategy for Afghanistan.

The question is what happens after conventional U.S. combat units withdraw.

However you feel about the Nixon administration, its diplomacy was brilliant. In spite of the Vietnam debacle, Nixon’s opening to China allowed the U.S. to emerge from the war with its global strategic position enhanced.

With Afghanistan, the picture is more worrisome. If U.S. conventional combat units transfer the lead role in security to the Afghans next year — as currently planned — that will likely create a power vacuum into which the Taliban will flow.

After 2014, several thousand special ops troops, backed up by air power and drone strikes, may keep the enemy “pruned back,” as Pike puts it. With the top leadership of al-Qaida decimated, the threat from that quarter is diminished.

Such an approach may be enough, Pike adds dryly, to preserve Karzai as “mayor of downtown Kabul.”

It’s a regrettable scenario, but after so many years with so little progress, one is forced to agree that “the point of diminishing returns” is an apt description of where we stand today.

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