We agree with President Barack Obama that it is time to end the combat mission in Afghanistan and bring our troops home. The plan he announced on Tuesday will accomplish that by the time the next president takes office in 2016.
After 13 years, declaring a date for a complete withdrawal is not only justified but welcome. After the 9/11 terror attacks, it was our duty to go after al-Qaida and the radical Taliban that sheltered Osama bin Laden’s fighters. But the reasons to keep fighting have become less clear as the years have dragged on, as public awareness – much less support – has waned.
“Americans have learned it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them,” Obama said from the Rose Garden, just back from a surprise Memorial Day weekend visit to troops in Afghanistan.
The pullout could be even quicker if the next president of Afghanistan does not sign a security agreement with the United States. Both remaining candidates in the runoff election on June 14 have pledged to do so, however, upon replacing the corrupt and unreliable Hamid Karzai.
Under Obama’s plan, about 9,800 of the 32,000 American troops now in Afghanistan would stay past this year, but only to train the Afghan military and to support counterterrorism operations from bases in the capital of Kabul and at Bagram Air Base. By the end of 2015, the U.S. troop total would be cut in half. And by the end of 2016, the only American military presence would be at the U.S. Embassy and a security assistance office. The president dutifully recited those accomplishments – crippling al-Qaida, preventing further attacks and helping Afghans start building a democracy – before saying it’s time to bring America’s longest war to a “responsible end.”
Critics on the right are saying that by announcing a date for withdrawal we are also giving our enemies a timetable for their emergence from the shadows. If our troops leave at the end of 2016, the Taliban will return early in 2017. Perhaps that is valid, but what are the alternatives? Whenever we draw down our troops, the Taliban or others will try to fill the vacuum. And by providing a specific date we apply pressure on our Afghan allies to prepare in earnest. If they want a nation free of tyranny, they must be prepared to fight for it.
As the president said: “We have to recognize that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one.”
No matter when we leave, and no matter under what circumstances, the sacrifices of the nearly 2,200 Americans who died there will not have been in vain. We have accomplished our mission.
Obama is right in saying it’s “time to turn the page” on a U.S. foreign policy focused on Afghanistan and Iraq, and to shift attention to new terrorist hot spots – in North Africa, for instance – and to broader priorities. The president laid out a more detailed foreign policy blueprint during a commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., on Wednesday – the same venue at which he announced the troop surge that pushed our total Afghanistan force past 100,000.
On his watch, Obama ended a war of choice in Iraq and plans to end a war of necessity in Afghanistan. Those are significant milestones.
A greater milestone would be to have a homefront that provides jobs, resources, medical care and support services to those 32,000 troops and support personnel who will be coming home. They fought for it; they deserve it.