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Too Much Gained in Afghanistan To Exit Now

A Commentary By Debra J. Saunders

As he campaigned for the presidency, Sen. Barack Obama argued that Afghanistan should become "the central front in the battle against terrorism." Obama has delivered on that issue. U.S. troop levels have more than doubled since the beginning of a troop buildup first begun under President George W. Bush.

The price for that promise is not cheap.

For the moment, more troops mean more combat. As Institute for the Study of War President Kimberly Kagan noted at a Brookings Institute event last month, "As those new troops come in, as we have seen, violence will go up. They did so in Iraq. They will do so in Afghanistan because we are going into areas that the enemy effectively has controlled. So we mustn't conflate or confuse a rise in violence with success or failure."

But others see the rise in casualties -- 47 U.S. troops were killed in combat in August, the deadliest month since the beginning of the war eight years ago -- and charges of ballot fraud during the August presidential and provincial council elections as signs of failure.

At a White House press conference Monday, CBS News' Chip Reid asked White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, "Is it possible that you're simply losing control in Afghanistan and it's going to continue to spiral out of control?"

Also last week, Washington Post conservative columnist George F. Will cited the rise in U.S. troop casualties and unquestioned corruption in President Hamid Karzai's government, then called for Obama to reverse course in Afghanistan. Will wrote, U.S. "forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensive revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air strikes, and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500--mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters."

The very notion of recommitting the NATO strategy in Afghanistan to unmanned drones goes against the philosophy of the top NATO commander, U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, whose strategy calls for winning Afghan hearts and minds, in part by reducing collateral deaths from air strikes. As the Washington Post's David Ignatius reported, McChrystal's classified report to the president on Afghanistan includes the headline: "Protecting the people is the mission. The conflict will be won by persuading the population, not by destroying the enemy."

McChrystal also is working to professionalize Afghanistan's inadequate military and police forces -- much as Gen. David Petraeus worked to beef up Iraq's national security forces.

On the left, the pressure to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan is even greater. At a Chronicle editorial board meeting Wednesday, Rep. Jackie Speier, D--Hillsborough, complained about the cost of the war and the lack of an exit strategy. "To me," Speier added, "Pakistan is almost a greater threat."

Fariba Nawa, a freelance journalist based in the Bay Area and dual citizen of Afghanistan and the United States, said that the Will/Speier emphasis on Pakistan is "offensive to me -- let's go to Pakistan, a country that really matters." They don't get it, she added, "Pakistan and Afghanistan are connected."

"My gut feeling as an Afghan is that if the U.S. troops leave again," Nawa told me, then civil war will return, women will lose precious freedoms, aid workers will be killed and Afghanistan will return to itspre--9/11 state.

Or as Brookings Institute senior fellow Bruce Riedel argued, "We abandoned Afghanistan twice before. We know what happens. The first time we got Sept. 11 and the al-Qaida base in Afghanistan. The second time, we got the mess we're in here."

If U.S. troops leave, Riedel opined, "The triumph of jihadism or the jihadism of al-Qaida and the Taliban in driving NATO out of Afghanistan would resonate through the Islamic World."

Nawa cites Afghan support for the NATO mission. She sees more people in school, relatives working at good jobs and women making advances in cities. "If we leave," she cautioned, "then you're going to have all that progress gone to waste."

Nawa has worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. At a Commonwealth Club event in March, Nawa noted that unlike in Iraq, most Afghans supported U.S. intervention from day one. "They don't consider the U.S. being there an occupation," she said.

And: "They want the U.S. to stay and to help them build their country." Think of the damage to America's reputation were the Will view to prevail. A precipitous pullout would cement this country's reputation as an unreliable ally that helicopters into countries with money and promises, then rotates out when the body count rises, leaving behind those who have risked their families by helping our mission.

If Washington were to bolt now, then what country in the world would have reason to trust us?

As unpleasant as the situation in Afghanistan is, this is no time to go squishy.


See Other Political Commentary

See Other Commentary by Debra J. Saunders

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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