First came the “disgusting” and “inhuman” video of four U.S. Marines urinating on Afghan corpses. Then there was the burning of the Korans by NATO officials, the highest conceivable affront to Muslim Afghans. In this strained and increasingly anti-U.S. climate, an American soldier’s massacre of 16 civilians (including nine children) in Panjwai was the final straw. The War in Afghanistan must come to an end. But the logistics of ending the war are far more complex than the conception of pulling out. A hasty withdrawal would be irresponsible to the Afghan people and dangerous for Afghanistan as well as its surrounding countries and international security at large.
Talks of a speedy exit have been underway since February. The U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he hoped American troops would be able to move from a combat role to a supportive one by mid-2013 instead of the previous target of end-2014 agreed on at a NATO summit in 2010. As an article in The Economist argues, the end-2014 deadline was tight, but at least aimed to transition power from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO-led coalition, to the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF). In the light of the recent military violations, a quicker retreat is tempting — but it risks undoing even the minimal progress that the ISAF has made.
More than ten years since the war first began, it is evident that lofty aspirations of democracy, women’s rights, and even political stability are no longer attainable through the war. However, even the modest ambitions of leaving the country “looking after its own security, not being a haven for terror, without the involvement of foreign troops” as Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron voices, require a careful plan for withdrawal. While officials in the White House debate a quicker departure and greater reduction in U.S. troops, the military commanders on the ground are reluctant to leave prior to the end of 2014 as planned. The current situation is too volatile for the ISAF to leave in a hurry.
On March 15, the Taliban suspended peace talks with Americans about a proposed prisoner exchange in Qatar. To plan for an expedited pull out when channels of diplomatic communication are blocked would be to leave Afghanistan in a situation potentially more unsafe than it was in 2001. The U.S. owes the Afghan people more: It must attempt to clean up the mess it has created to the greatest extent possible.
Additionally, leaving at a time when the Taliban is livid and hostile will likely create further instability in Pakistan. The border between the two is already a stronghold for the Taliban, who propagate a version of fundamentalist Islam throughout Pakistan. The recent events have seriously offended the moral and religious sentiments of the Taliban, and if attempts are not made to at least partially placate them, the repercussions on Pakistan and other countries in the region will be disastrous.
The war will be written in history as a terrible failure, an inexcusable loss of lives and a waste of resources. Research to assess the true costs of the war is underway, and a sustained investigation of the economic, social, and political consequences must inform the U.S.’s decisions to undertake future such wars of liberation. The lessons of Vietnam were blatantly ignored when the U.S., in a rash attempt to protect national security after 9/11, became embroiled in a war that has become impossible to win.
There is no doubt that the U.S. needs to leave Afghanistan. But it must take ownership for the recent atrocities of its military instead of fleeing in haste from a war that it started in the first place. If there is any hope for leaving a semblance of stability in Afghanistan, the U.S. should focus on planning concrete steps to end the war in a feasible and timely manner.
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