Jack Ohman / johman@sacbee.com

Editorial: Obama is right to look at quicker Afghan pullout

Published: Wednesday, Jul. 10, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 12A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jul. 10, 2013 - 12:24 am

Finally, President Barack Obama is laying down the law to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, even warning that he might withdraw all U.S. troops next year.

Good. For far too long, the administration has publicly coddled the corrupt, erratic Karzai and tied America's fortunes too closely to his regime.

It is past time to separate ourselves and to encourage potential new leaders to emerge as Afghanistan heads toward a presidential election next April. It is time to pursue a political settlement to secure gains on the battlefield and to refocus on Pakistan and our broader security interests in the region.

After nearly 12 years of war, we have accomplished our main mission in Afghanistan – to wipe out the terrorists responsible for 9/11, to weaken the Taliban militants who sheltered them and to make sure al-Qaida and others plotting against America don't gain a sanctuary again. While freeing Afghans – especially girls and women – from the Taliban's tyranny is an accomplishment as well, it was never a goal to build a stable and prosperous Afghanistan, if that were even possible.

These gains in America's longest war have come at a high price – about 2,250 U.S. deaths, plus nearly 1,100 from coalition countries. There have been thousands upon thousands of civilian casualties, 3,000 killed or wounded just in the first five months of this year.

Of the 63,000 or so U.S. troops still in Afghanistan, all but 34,000 are scheduled to leave by next February and nearly all of the rest by the end of 2014. While a small residual force may be required as the Afghan military takes over security, Americans don't need to be fighting and dying for years to come – and certainly not to merely prop up Karzai.

The United States bears some responsibility for choosing Karzai as Afghanistan's leader following the Taliban's fall. In 2004, he became the country's first popularly elected president, but he has lost much support since, in no small measure due to the egregious corruption in his family and inner circle.

In 2009, he narrowly won re-election in an election stained by allegations of fraud. Karzai has pledged to leave office when his second five-year term ends next year, as the constitution requires. Obama needs to hold him to that promise, though it's not at all clear if there's an Afghan leader who can unite all the disparate factions.

While it has been obvious for years that Karzai is an unreliable partner, what finally set off Obama is how the Afghan leader sabotaged the first potential peace talks with the Taliban. When the White House announced last month that the long-delayed negotiations would begin in Qatar, where the Taliban had opened a quasi-embassy, Karzai renounced the effort and called off talks on a long-term security deal required to keep any U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014. Soon afterward in a video conference with Obama, Karzai accused the United States of undermining his government by trying to negotiate a separate peace with the Taliban, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

Obama is so frustrated that he is seriously considering accelerating the U.S. withdrawal and even the "zero option" of pulling out all troops by the end of 2014, the Times says. Empty threats are damaging to our credibility around the world, so the president must be ready to follow through and accept the consequences.

Playing hardball with Karzai is more than justified; it is in America's national interest.

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