Point of View

At Afghanistan war's end, bring US troops home

March 30, 2014 

Goldsboro High School graduate Karl Eikenberry can talk Afghanistan with the best of them. His North Carolina education surely helps, but Eikenberry leans most on his experience commanding U.S. forces in Afghanistan, 2005-2007, and as ambassador, 2009-2011.

During remarks at Duke University earlier this month, Eikenberry recalled 2009 as a momentous year in this war. Barack Obama had entered office committed to shifting attention from Iraq to Afghanistan, which led to two reviews about how many service members to employ there. The military became wedded really very early on to setting nation-building as our mission in Afghanistan and to adding tens of thousands of forces as a result, Eikenberry said.

Five years later, the Pentagon now seems “wedded” to keeping thousands of military personnel in Afghanistan even after the combat mission ends in December. Ending the war should mean that the warfighters come home.

Keeping our warfighters in Afghanistan comes with the very real risk that, semantics aside, the war will continue on its own. We’ve accomplished our mission by killing Osama bin Laden, dismantling the al-Qaida organization he built and proving our resolve to the Taliban, but local rivals throughout Afghanistan and the Pakistani borderland have plenty of fight still in them. Stepping aside allows us to manage our security much better than staying and hoping none of them shoots at us.

Losing lives in a war that was supposed to be over is the ultimate price, but it’s not the only one. Congress and the White House have reached at least three tough agreements on our deficit, and war costs are breaking that budget. Or, to say it a bit more technically, our war in Afghanistan is exempt from the spending caps we’ve set and is unfinanced by the additional revenue we’ve raised. All $85 billion that we allocate to war this year will pile on to our debt, as will anything we spend later.

These costs have accrued since the White House allowed the Pentagon to become wedded in 2009 to a “more troops” war strategy. We’ll keep paying them until the White House requires the Pentagon to challenge its assumption and publicly explain how it can end a war without bringing the warfighters home.

After critiquing the Pentagon’s approach in 2009, Eikenberry joined in assuming that thousands of service members should stay in Afghanistan past the war’s “end.” This doesn’t mean he wants to heedlessly lose lives or waste money, of course, and neither does the Pentagon. Those are consequences, not intentions.

Our military has a front-line view of the Afghan government’s weakness and the repugnant militias that still vie for control in many parts of the country. Fueled by Pakistan and other spoilers, all sorts of undesirable things can spill out from these fights, including gender and religious oppression, drug trafficking and possibly terrorism.

After our sacrificing so much for our cause, we easily get attached to solving these problems. And perhaps we can, the thinking goes, with a much smaller residual force of approximately 10,000. The subtext of this perspective, though, is that we’ll shrink the war rather than end it.

But only one of Afghanistan’s problems is also ours: international terrorism. Twelve years of combat have already minimized the risk that Afghanistan will be a haven for international terrorism. Fighting that risk to zero is an impossibility, an equation for endless sacrifice and disappointment.

Now is the moment to insist that we follow through on our plan to end the war. Afghans go to the polls this week to elect Hamid Karzai’s successor and, as soon as that new leader is in place, President Obama is set to press him to extend our military’s invitation. Even Obama continues to wrestle with the inertia of this war.

Eikenberry conveyed the weight of this inertia in his appearance at Duke, criticizing its effects in retrospect without challenging it now. The best way for us to handle that tension is by listening to what Eikenberry said – the Pentagon may be jumping to strategic conclusions – and using that insight to evaluate what he and many other national security leaders want to do now.

It’s going to take a really good story to explain how we can end this war without bringing the warfighters home.

Matthew Leatherman (@MattLeatherman) is a freelance contributor on state-level international affairs.

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