The US must keep a residual force in Afghanistan

The News TribuneJune 1, 2014 

Tens of thousands of U.S. troops — including many of our neighbors at Joint Base Lewis-McChord — made immense sacrifices to prevent a Taliban comeback in Afghanistan.

They and their allies have been successful, as evidenced by last month’s presidential election, the education of girls, and the fact that women aren’t being horsewhipped in the streets and homosexuals aren’t being buried alive.

Nor has Afghanistan again become a staging area for international terror attacks or an encore of 9/11.

Barack Obama’s overriding priority in Afghanistan ought to be withdrawing troops while helping its government keep armed jihadists at bay — a critical U.S. interest. He didn’t advance that interest Tuesday when he announced that he’d have every American soldier out of the country by the end of 2016. That’s three weeks before he leaves the Oval Office; otherwise it’s a perfectly arbitrary date.

The president talks as if the presence of any military force in Afghanistan amounts to an American war, even if the troops do nothing but train their Afghan counterparts and advertise American support for the Afghan government.

If leaving a support force in an allied country is warfare, then the United States must still be fighting World War II. America has more than 55,000 troops in Japan and more than 47,000 troops in Germany. It has troops in many other former war zones.

They aren’t there to perpetuate fighting; they’re there — at the invitation of the allied countries — to intimidate aggressive dictatorships and keep the neighborhood peaceful.

Obama, to his credit, has already effectively shut down the American side of the Afghanistan War . The United States has turned over combat operations to the Afghan government. American casualties are now minimal.

All good. It is unquestionably time to pull out most of the remaining 32,000 U.S. troops. The president proposes to leave 9,800 in place temporarily, then move quickly to zero.

Zero-by-2017 translates into the disappearance of NATO allies from Afghanistan. It translates into shrinkage of civilian aid workers who’ve been building schools and improving conditions in areas threatened by the Taliban. It translates into uncertainty that would discourage international financing for Afghanistan’s heretofore impressive economic growth.

The president’s absolute zero looks crafted to score political points, especially with hard-core antiwar folks who could live with a savage Taliban regime if that were the price of ridding Afghanistan of every last U.S. soldier.

The first phase of Obama’s plan — 9,800 troops in a support role — is smart. It’s the way the United States has helped keep other dangerous regions stable after previous wars. The next part is not smart. The difference between 9,800 and zero could be catastrophic.

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