Feature

Obama’s Afghan exit plan

The president forged an agreement with NATO to hand over security to Afghan forces and withdraw most foreign troops by 2014.

What happened President Obama started the countdown to the end of the war in Afghanistan this week, forging an agreement with the U.S.’s NATO allies to hand over security to Afghan forces and withdraw almost all foreign troops by 2014. “The Afghan War as we understand it is over,” Obama announced at a 60-nation summit in Chicago. The timetable agreed to by NATO leaders will see Afghan troops take over the lead combat role in mid-2013. Most of the 130,000 NATO soldiers now stationed in Afghanistan will be withdrawn the following year, although a small counterterrorism force will stay for another decade to train Afghan soldiers and pursue al Qaida fighters. Obama acknowledged that the Taliban remained “a robust enemy.” But he said that there would never be an “optimal point” to exit the country, and that the U.S. military thinks the Afghans are ready to stand on their own.

The summit’s display of unity was marred by a widening breach between the U.S. and Pakistan, which closed key supply routes into Afghanistan last year after 24 Pakistani soldiers were mistakenly killed in a U.S. airstrike. Obama refused to apologize for the strike, as Pakistan demanded, and at the NATO meeting, he pointedly snubbed the country’s president, Asif Ali Zardari. At a press conference to end the summit, an exasperated Obama warned Pakistan that it was in the country’s interests to work with the U.S. to avoid being “consumed” by extremists.

What the editorials said U.S. and Afghan National Army forces have made a lot of progress against the Taliban over the past two years, said The New York Times, and now control 260 of 403 districts, covering 65 percent of the population. But the Taliban remain relentless foes, especially in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, and the Afghan army is still “dependent on NATO for planning, management, air support, intelligence, and logistics.” If given insufficient funding and support after 2014, Afghanistan could easily “devolve into civil war.”

Americans have had enough of this war, said the Eugene, Ore., Register-Guard. The U.S. went into Afghanistan in 2001 with the aim of destroying al Qaida and killing Osama bin Laden. We’ve accomplished that mission. So let’s not waste any more American lives defending Afghanistan’s “thoroughly inefficient, corrupt, and despised government,” or trying to “resolve its ancient tribal conflicts.”

What the columnists saidHistory shows that Obama’s strategy is doomed to failure, said Michael Rubin in CommentaryMagazine.com. When the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, it left behind a 160,000-strong Afghan army, propped up with $3 billion a year in aid from Moscow. That experiment “ended in government collapse, civil war, and ultimately the vacuum which enabled 9/11.” The president is in denial if he believes it will end differently this time.

Obama actually has very low expectations for Afghanistan’s future, said David Sanger in The New York Times. Although he came into office saying that Afghanistan was the “good war,” aides say he quickly realized that the military could not articulate any reasonable endgame, and that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was corrupt and untrustworthy. Aides told Obama that even if the U.S. spent another $1 trillion and kept 100,000-plus troops there for a decade, we could not remake the feudal, corrupt society. By early 2011, the president had seen enough, and “told his staff to arrange a speedy, orderly exit.” Obama’s supposed support for this war was deeply cynical, said Peter Beinart in TheDailyBeast.com, but he won’t pay a political price for pulling out. Most Americans are sick of this conflict—66 percent want out, according to polls—so Mitt Romney won’t dare “attack Obama for having surrendered.”

The price for Obama’s “schizophrenic policy” will come later, said David Rothkopf in ForeignPolicy.com. If Karzai’s weak government falls after the U.S. pullout, the Taliban’s Islamist allies south of the border will likely move to topple the Pakistani government. The U.S. will then face the nightmare possibility of a nuclear-armed terrorist regime. Obama may have scored some political points in an election year, but when the “mess in Afghanistan and Pakistan grows uglier still, he will own those results.”

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