The White House has hinted that absent an agreement with the government of Hamid Karzai or its successor, the U.S. and its coalition allies might even pull out all troops when the U.N. mandate for their presence expires at the end of 2014.
A similar impasse over a status of forces agreement in Iraq — the right of U.S. troops to conduct independent combat missions with immunity from local law — led to the earlier-than-planned withdrawal of the U.S. military there.
It is probably fair to say to say that the American public, at least that dwindling few who still pay attention to this war, would not be brokenhearted if we pull completely out of Afghanistan.
There are 66,000 American troops there now, methodically turning over their outlying bases to the Afghan army which still needs substantial U.S. support, including supplies, transport and intelligence.
The NATO commanders seem agreed that a residual force of, at a minimum, 10,000 to 30,000 troops is needed to protect the status quo and continue training and equipping the Afghan security forces. A force of 3,000 to 6,000 could protect Kabul and the vital Bagram air base and not much else.
The U.S. had a valid reason for going into Afghanistan — to catch and punish those behind the 9/11 attacks. Most of that mission was quickly achieved, although the demise of Osama bin Laden himself took longer than expected.
It can be argued that our complete exit from Iraq was a mistake, one that squandered the copious amounts of blood and treasure poured into that country — an endeavour that had resulted in a fledgling democracy in a vital part of the world. President Obama’s decision to completely pull out put those gains and that democracy at great risk and easily could result in country run by U.S.-hating Islamist regime like the one in Iran.
Afghanistan, on the other hand, is in a remote part of the world with little intrinsic geopolitical value. Moreover, our “nation-building” efforts there have done little to transform it or engender democracy. Those efforts have only gotten harder and less successful following Obama’s well-publicized decision in 2010 to start reducing our forces last year. We should not be fighting wars that we have no plan and no will to win.
A stay-behind force of 3,000 in Afghanistan is almost the same as no presence at all. At best that size force might prevent another Benghazi; at worst, it would provide an escort sufficient to spirit a pro-U.S. government to the airport as the Taliban and assorted warlords closed in on the capital.
At this point, there is next to nothing to be gained by staying in Afghanistan and much to be lost. There’s no point in pretending any longer that we are there to win the war or remake the country. Our goal now should be to remove our troops and other assets as quickly and bloodlessly as possible.