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(Updates 2nd paragraph with comments from Santorum and Gingrich.)
The massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a lone U.S. service member last weekend has intensified debate as to whether the U.S. should speed the end of the war in Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, the Obama administration is considering whether to announce a redeployment of 20,000 troops by the middle of 2013, on top of the 22,000 scheduled to leave by this September. (There are 90,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan.) The Times reports that Vice President Joe Biden has voiced support for a faster pullout. And he’s got company.
“I think we’re getting into an untenable situation,” California Republican Duncan Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told conservative radio host Frank Gaffney in calling for “really reducing the number” of troops to focus on counter-terrorism. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said on the Today show that the U.S. may need to “get out and probably get out sooner” than Obama’s announced plan to end combat operations by 2014. His rival, Newt Gingrich, told Fox News “we’re risking the lives of young men and women in a mission that frankly, may not be doable.” The doubts of these right-wing hawks are echoed by such liberals as the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, who argues that “the only question should be how quickly we can get our troops onto transport planes to fly them home.”
A Washington Post poll taken before the Kandahar massacre found that a majority of the American public believes the U.S. should withdraw all its troops, regardless of whether the Afghan army is ready to assume responsibility for the country’s security; at least 60% believe the war was not worth fighting in the first place.
Taken together, those figures suggest that Americans believe the war in Afghanistan has been a failure. Such a view—though understandable, given the recent headlines—is excessively gloomy. In fact, the best argument for ending the war in Afghanistan is that by a whole range of measures, the U.S.’s 10-year campaign there has been a success.
Start with the reason the U.S. went to war in the first place: to destroy al-Qaeda’s sanctuary in Afghanistan. Counterterrorism experts believe that, at most, 50 to 100 al-Qaeda operatives are still in Afghanistan; the rest have fled, been captured, or killed. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the terrorist organization has been decimated to the point of irrelevance. Its leader and most of his lieutenants are dead. The chance that the group could pull off another 9/11-style attack on the U.S. homeland is miniscule.
Even when it comes to the West’s murkier goals of stabilizing Afghanistan, setting up credible national institutions and kickstarting development—what’s also known as “nation-building”—the picture is more encouraging than media reports would have you believe. According to the latest figures compiled in the Brookings Institution’s Afghanistan Index, the basic quality of life has improved dramatically since 2001. The country’s economy is growing faster than China’s. Electricity capacity has quintupled. Some 13 million Afghans own a cell phone; a decade ago, less than a million had access to a telephone of any kind. More than 8 million Afghan boys and girls are enrolled in school, up from less than 1 million students in 2001 (none of whom were girls). Infant mortality rates have been cut in half. Average life expectancy has increased by 20 years since 2004. And while polls of public opinion in Afghanistan are highly flawed, most show that a strong majority continues to believe the country is going in the right direction.
All that said, the country has huge problems, from its notoriously corrupt government to its feckless security forces and on to a resurgent drug trade. None of those problems, however, can be fixed by keeping 70,000 American troops in the country for an additional two years. It’s possible, maybe even probable, that the Taliban will regain power in some form once the U.S. withdraws; outstaying our welcome will ensure they will. Yet it is thanks to Western blood, money, and sacrifice that the Afghan people have a fighting chance at a future few could have imagined a decade ago. It’s time to end the U.S. mission in Afghanistan because the mission is accomplished. We’ve done all that what we can do.