[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
It's starting to look like the Obama administration is moving toward a decision to get American troops out of Afghanistan at an even faster pace than the drawdowns announced in November. I hope so. At this point, we no longer have any valid interest in maintaining tens of thousands of soldiers in the country.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that the administration is considering speeding up its withdrawal timetable. Two days later, Afghan president Hamid Karzai demanded that American troops pull out of the country's villages by 2013, confining themselves to major bases. We should listen to him, only sooner.
While the original foray into Afghanistan was justified (after 9/11), and President Obama's attempt to put things back on track after the Bush administration's incompetent handling of the war in Afghanistan (with its diversion to Iraq) was understandable, two years after the implementation of the president's new strategy, it's time to reassess why we are in Afghanistan, what we can hope to accomplish, and what our next move should be.
The original goal in attacking Afghanistan in 2002 was to topple the Taliban government, which had allowed Al Qaeda to base its terrorist operations out of the country. The 2010 Obama plan was aimed at nation building, providing an infrastructure for a civil government and an Afghan police force and army that could defend the country from the menace and religious extremism of the Taliban (thus, allowing the United States to exit Afghanistan).
In 2012, after ten years in Afghanistan (longer than the Soviets in the 1970s), it seems to me we've done all we can do there, and it's time to bring most of our troops home. None of the reasons proffered for a continued major presence make sense anymore.
Fighting terrorism. Thanks to the Obama administration's escalation of attacks on Al Qaeda, including drone attacks in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the terrorist organization has been left leaderless, weakened and dispersed, top intelligence leaders testified to Congress in February. And the killing of Osama bin Laden was carried out not by the might of conventional army divisions, but through the specialized work of intelligence professionals and small, elite military groups (like SEAL Team Six).
Simply put, we don't need tens of thousands of American troops in Afghanistan to fight Al Qaeda and other terrorists. It's not the way the world operates in 2012. The real dangers are elsewhere. And we can address the dangers that remain there more efficiently, with only a handful of soldiers in Afghanistan.
Nation building. Possibly the most compelling argument to stay is to protect the Afghan people from the extremism of the Taliban. But report after report from Afghanistan, including two New York Times Magazine pieces roughly 20 months apart (June 2010 and February 2012), tell similar stories of the challenges facing U.S. troops in trying to build Afghan institutions to offer an alternative to the Taliban. The Taliban know they can outwait us. They know that eventually American troops will have to pull out. They have areas in which they can retreat, knowing American soldiers cannot chase after them. And they have the resolve to forge ahead. The biggest problem is that the Afghan people know this, too. They are afraid to support the Afghan government, knowing full well that the Taliban can seek retribution.
But the inability to nation build (assuming that the Afghan army and police cannot fight off the Taliban once we leave, something we won't know until we're gone) is not just about the Taliban threat. It may be time that we recognize that a majority of the Afghan people may not want to live in a Western-style free democracy.
Even if we could, somehow, remove the Taliban as a dangerous force, Afghan culture is not always in sync with Western values, especially equality for women. The country's record on rights for women, and not just acts by the Taliban, but by the government and families acting on their own and for their tribes, is abysmal. Imprisoning women for being raped, honor killings, attacks on girls for attending schools, and acid attacks are emblematic of the problem.
A culture that so freely mistreats half its population may not be ready for democracy. We can't impose our way of life on people that don't want it. And I think it's time we stop sacrificing the lives of our soldiers to try and do it. Unfortunately, there are many places in the world where governments and groups persecute portions of their populations (based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, race, tribe, etc.). We can protest, use diplomacy, employ sanctions and otherwise try to fight these abuses. But we can't send the military to all these places to try and protect those being persecuted. So the reprehensible way Afghanistan treats its women can't be the primary justification for keeping American soldiers in the country.
Protecting an ally. For what kind of government in Afghanistan are American soldiers risking (and, too often, giving) their lives? Not one that is worth their sacrifices (and that of their families). Karzai's government is corrupt, with accusations that he fixed his 2009 re-election questioning its legitimacy. And it is not as if he has been a loyal ally to the United States, as he has openly courted Iran as an ally (and taken money from the country) and surrounded himself with anti-American advisers.
At this point, it's hard to argue that the Karzai regime is one worth fighting for.
In the end, over the last two years, we as a country did everything we were capable of to give the Afghan people the chance to choose a path of democracy and equality. Whether we waited too long, or the country's ancient tribal culture and misogynic traditions were too deep and ingrained to overcome, we seemed to have reached the limit of how far we could move Afghan society away from its less free traditions. The bottom line is that staying longer is not going to make a difference.
Our goals when we invaded Afghanistan, and when President Obama reinvigorated efforts in Afghanistan in 2010, are no longer served by the continuing presence of a large number of troops in the country.
Over the last ten years, we toppled the Taliban. We built up the Afghan army and police force. We built up the country's infrastructure. We accomplished a lot (although we wasted opportunities while in Iraq, but we can't turn back the clock).
What happens next is up to the Afghan people, not us. The country's president has asked us to leave. If he doesn't want us there, we shouldn't be there. In fact, we should beat Karzai's timetable and get most of our troops out of Afghanistan as soon as is safe and practical.