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.
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Anthony Cordesman, an Afghanistan analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, estimates that it will take “at least 13 months to clear the equipment we’ve got deployed. People forget that there are very real physical limits. We cannot leave the things behind at random – they’re worth too much and are potentially dangerous.”Skip to next paragraph
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But these are logistics, a matter in which the US military has long excelled. Troops might still guard the equipment, moving it out in an orderly manner without risking US lives. “It’s certainly isn’t true that this is something you have to continue,” Dr. Cordesman says. “You can move troops out more quickly than planned. You can cut aid more sharply.”
The larger question, he adds, is whether it is strategically desirable to leave Afghanistan now. With a focus on tamping down corruption and with a couple more years work with the Afghan national security forces, “I think what you can accomplish is a reasonable chance that the Afghan government and economy can hold together” with “some chance of a coherent structure in Kabul, and a reasonable chance that the Afghan Army can be strong enough that, with some cooperation,” it can hold insurgent forces at bay,” Cordesman says.
“Can we guarantee a future? No,” he adds. “Yes, it has been an incredibly costly and frustrating decade. And yes, we do not seem to have clear plans for the future.”
However, “We can create a situation where we can show the world that we were not defeated,” he says, and at the same time avoid a decision that would "deprive Afghanistan of any chance of stability."
“There’s a very real difference between simply running for the exits and leaving in a way that provides some chance of structure and order,” he adds.
Yet it remains an ongoing source of debate whether American forces can accomplish any more to make American any safer in the time they have left in the country – or more precisely, analysts say, whether what they might accomplish is worth any more American lives.
“The question of what we’re gaining there – that’s been a question for a number of years,” says retired Marine Col. T.X. Hammes, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University.
With Mr. Obama’s announcement of a 2014 withdrawal, “We’ve now accepted that strategically we’ve gotten all we can” out of Afghanistan. “We now have a path out that we’ve committed to,” he adds.
“We’re trying to leave, and have sufficient resources to cover our withdrawal. There’s nothing particularly ennobling in that, or anything that makes you feel good, but at least we’re leaving.”
Some military officers say, however, that as the decade-long war in Afghanistan winds down, it brings to mind Sen. John Kerry’s famous lament of Vietnam, in 1971 Senate testimony: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Dr. Hammes recalls working with British forces in Iraq in 2008 “who were asking that question.” He adds that there was and is no good answer. “It’s hard for those people who are going to lose family there” in the months to come, and for the commanders and politicians who must answer for it. “That frankly is one of those leadership challenges that come with the conflict.”
Eaton recalls asking himself the same questions as a young second lieutenant in 1972, after four years at West Point, as Saigon was still raging. “The attitude was, ‘I’d really rather not be the last guy shot as we get out of Vietnam,’ ” he recalls. But “that’s been going on in warfare since we started wars – and since we’ve hoped to end them. That is part of being a soldier.”