Americans are rightfully weary of the war in Afghanistan; the vast majority of our soldiers should come home, as planned, by the end of this year.
Yet, the United States must preserve as many of the gains that cost so much blood and treasure as it can. That is why it is so important that the Obama administration reach a security agreement with the Afghan government that would allow a small force to stay behind until the Afghan military can face the Taliban and other insurgents on its own.
You only have to look to Iraq, America’s other post-9/11 war, to see the dire consequences of not having such a transition pact in place.
After eight years of fighting and nearly 4,500 deaths, U.S. forces withdrew two years ago. Now, militants under the flag of al-Qaida are threatening to take Fallujah and Ramadi, two key cities where some of the bloodiest combat took place.
Instead of creating a stable democracy, the Iraqi government is struggling to control sectarian violence that killed more than 7,800 civilians last year. The painful truth is that any victories in that misbegotten war could be slipping away.
A repeat in Afghanistan must be avoided.
In the 12-plus years since 9/11, 2,100 American service members have died there. We should honor their sacrifice by not allowing progress on the battlefield and for the Afghan people blow away like sand.
Unfortunately, President Barack Obama has to negotiate with Hamid Karzai, the corrupt and erratic Afghan president. In November, the White House believed it had a deal that would clarify that the few thousand remaining U.S. troops would not have a combat role, but would train and assist Afghan forces. It would also mean billions of dollars in continued U.S. and international aid to the Afghan regime.
A council of tribal leaders endorsed that deal, but Karzai has refused to sign. He keeps trying to add conditions, such as the U.S. ending raids on Afghan homes and releasing Afghan nationals from the prison for terrorist suspects at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba.
Karzai’s latest outrage is a plan to release more than 80 detainees accused of attacking and even killing U.S. forces without putting them on trial. The Obama administration is right to say that is unacceptable.
Thursday, Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, two of the strongest supporters in Congress of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, delivered that message in person to Karzai. They also warned him that public backing for the war is plummeting – to 17 percent in a CNN poll released Monday, down from 52 percent in December 2008.
Initially, the administration wanted the agreement signed by this week. Now, it is holding out the possibility of signing it as late as this summer, after the scheduled election in April of Karzai’s successor. That would complicate planning for the United States and its allies, but it may require a more reasonable Afghan leader to get the deal done.
The plan is to scale down from about 47,000 U.S. troops now to about 8,000 by year’s end. The justifiable frustration among U.S. officials has reached the point of seriously talking about pulling out all troops. That is not something either side should want.
We certainly don’t want a perpetual U.S. military presence in a war zone. But withdrawing and allowing our enemies to quickly return doesn’t make sense either. Iraq is a bloody lesson of that.