I visited Afghanistan a few years ago on vacation. One of my closest friends and his wife ran an NGO there, and if I wanted to see them, that’s where I needed to go. When we weren’t hunkered down behind security gates in Kabul, we visited the site of the Buddhas in Bamiyan, lived in a yurt, watched kuchi nomads, explored bunkers built by the Taliban, Russians, and Genghis Khan, and took pedal boats out on gorgeous mineral lakes. I was planning on writing a travel piece for the Washington Post, until a suicide bomber attacked just outside the airport as I was leaving, making a strong point that the country was not ready for tourism.
The fact is, few people want to be in Afghanistan at all. So what is our government doing putting service members’ lives at risk for this godforsaken country, or spending tax dollars over there when we could be investing at home? The Republican presidential contenders see getting out fast as such a winning issue that they have abandoned all their security credentials to jump on the populist bandwagon.
But someone needs to be the adult in the room. Luckily, the President has chosen that role, making the tough but responsible decision that we needed rather than playing politics.
Other than perhaps John McCain, no one wants to be in Afghanistan forever. It would tie us down, prevent us from being agile in responding to fast-changing threats, and drain our treasury when we need those funds. So our question is not about direction, but about the slope of the trajectory. Moreover, the real dilemmas are not just about troop levels—they are about what strategy can serve our goals given the realities on the ground.
Afghanistan remains a high-stakes region. If we get out the wrong way, we are likely to have to come back in a few years when a new group of international terrorists chooses to take root in the country. That’s the lesson we learned from our swift exit in the 1990s (and the last scene in Charlie Wilson’s War). Leave too quickly, and the best and brightest of Afghanistan who chose to build their country—the teachers and policemen—as well as the people who have provided us with intelligence that has decimated al Qaeda will be left to be massacred.
America has done that before. In Iraq in the 1990s, the Shia we encouraged to rise up were killed by Saddam Hussein when we left. It’s not right—and it’s not smart, as it harms our credibility, destroys crucial intelligence assets that we still need, and leaves no Afghans to run the country, which is our end goal. Leaving—but more slowly—gives us time to protect these people and their cities so that they can assume the reins of government. Last but far from least: nothing is as dangerous as pulling back from forward-deployed positions. The logistics of that pullback require a timetable such as the president has laid out.
Meanwhile, while we don’t want to be in Afghanistan for the long haul, we don’t want to entirely leave, either. A small troop presence is needed to give us a close launching base if nuclear-armed Pakistan loses control of those weapons—or otherwise chooses to cause more problems. A diplomat can’t admit it, but let’s be honest: Pakistan is a security nightmare. It funds terrorists that killed innocent Indians and Americans in Mumbai, probably protected Osama bin Laden, and has a military and intelligence apparatus riddled with individuals who share more goals with al Qaeda than with us. Our chances of deterring and containing these threats, while continuing to train the Afghan Army and create some space for the Afghan government to function, are far greater if we have some troops nearby.
So the President has made the right call. It’s not the decision the generals wanted. Nor is it the decision many Americans on the left or right wanted. But it is, nevertheless, the one that will best protect the country, our lives, and our treasure over long term. This choice means that Afghanistan will never be the next Luxembourg. But making Afghanistan safe for tourists is not the goal of this President, who mixes his progressivism with practicality. President Obama’s objective has always been to deter, defeat, and dismantle al-Qaeda, while preventing the region from providing safe haven for future terrorists. This strategy is a step closer to accomplishing that goal.