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Afghanistan: Why don't we leave now?

The rise in attacks by Afghan forces against Western troops is threatening US-Afghan military cooperation – a key reason to stay until 2014. The trend could affect the US exit strategy.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / September 19, 2012

A member of the US military police stands guard during a training session for Afghanistan National Police in Afghanistan's Wardak Province in this In this Sept. 19, 2009, file photo.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP/File

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Washington

Why can’t we just leave Afghanistan now? It’s the unspoken question that top Pentagon officials are endeavoring to answer in their assurances that America must stay its course in the war-torn country.

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It comes in the wake of a spate of “insider attacks” by Afghan security forces that have left 51 NATO service members dead this year – a 45 percent increase in such attacks over 2011.

It also comes during a month in which the surge of 30,000 forces that President Obama ordered into the country in 2009 is ending. By the end of September, some 68,000 American troops will remain in Afghanistan. 

The majority of US troops are scheduled to depart in 2014, when US combat operations will come to an end.

The nation’s top military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, stressed this week that the surge’s purpose was “to buy us some time on some Taliban initiatives,” he said, “and to buy us some space to grow the Afghan security forces.”

He says it worked, but grappled aloud with its cost. “The surge had its intended effect,” General Dempsey said. “I think it was an effort that was worth the cost – and don’t forget, it did have its cost.”

That cost continues, in both money and lives. 

One American is killed every day in Afghanistan, on average, this year. 

In a time of budget-cutting, the US treasury spends $60 billion a month on the war. On an annual basis, that’s enough to buy groceries for every American family for more than a year and a half.

“At some level, when you make a decision to continue waging a war, losing lives and money, you make a decision that hopefully what you can get in exchange for that is worth it,” says Stephen Biddle, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a former adviser to retired Gen. David Petraeus

“At some point it will reach the point where what we get is no longer worth American lives.” 

Analysts point out that the bulk of the war is already slated to end in 2014. After that, some American advisers will stay on the ground. But with the spate of “insider attacks” on US forces, the joint Afghan-American patrols that are a key part of the training mission have been suspended, deemed too dangerous to risk American lives.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who commanded the Pentagon’s Iraqi security force training program from 2003 to 2004, says this latest round of green-on-blue killings will prompt tough questions among commanders and within the Pentagon. “You have to ask yourself, what has changed?” says General Eaton, now a senior adviser to the National Security Network think tank. 

“Should we accelerate the cessation of combat operations from what the president laid out in the NATO conference in Chicago? These are valid questions, and that’s what [commander of US forces in Afghanistan] John Allen, his chain of command, the secretary of defense – that is precisely what they must be mulling over right now.”

Eaton and others point out that simply ending US involvement in a war is a vast undertaking, and speeding it up comes with its own risks.

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