Recent successes pave way for faster troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

Our troops continue to do an outstanding job in Afghanistan, but after 10 years of war, hundreds of billions of dollars spent and thousands of American casualties, it is time for Afghanistan to stand on its own. It is time to bring our troops home as soon as we responsibly can.

Recent successes have paved the way for our withdrawal from Afghanistan. We have made significant progress in achieving our goal to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat al Qaeda and to prevent its return to either Afghanistan or Pakistan. The death of Osama bin Laden and the elimination of much of al Qaeda’s senior leadership over the last few years has made America safer. On the ground in Afghanistan, our military, with our International Security Assistance Force and Afghan partners, has done tremendous work to push the Taliban out of the south and southwest of Afghanistan. This progress has helped to position the Afghan government, and the Afghan people, for success.

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We should be under no illusions, however: Being in a better position in Afghanistan is still a very difficult spot. Fortunately, our mission is not to build a perfect Afghanistan. Our mission is to help build an Afghanistan that is capable of denying the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies a safe place to operate.

It is time to lean forward on transitioning the responsibility for security to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the Afghan government. While this is happening now — after the latest tranche of provinces and districts are transitioned, more than 50 percent of the Afghan population will reside in areas where the Afghan army and police are in the lead to provide security — we should look for ways to accelerate this process.

If there is one demonstrable historical truth, it is that foreign forces in Afghanistan are destabilizing over time. Our troops are doing tremendous work on behalf of the Afghan people, but no people would be happy with more than 130,000 foreign troops carrying out combat operations in their country. Increased friction and tension are almost unavoidable, and we have seen some of the results of that with the increase in the killing of coalition forces by members of the ANSF and the recent riots over the accidental burning of the Quran.

Over time, the presence of so many foreign troops will also undermine the legitimacy of the Afghan government. We are currently witnessing the impact of this pressure — President Hamid Karzai’s recent comments attacking the United States, while unfortunate and misguided, almost certainly reflect the domestic pressure under which he finds himself as his people come to resent the presence of a foreign army. In turn, this pressure and the resulting comments reduce the reliability of Karzai as a partner.

The solution to this dilemma is simple: we should accelerate the plans we have already made for withdrawal. The NATO Lisbon Conference of 2010 laid out a realistic plan for transition. Our challenge is to now look for ways to implement it as fast as we responsibly can.

Our troops and their civilian counterparts have done a great job. Across the country, violence levels are down. U.S. and ISAF forces have built the ANSF from an anemic 155,000 in November of 2008 to about 330,000 now and a planned level of 352,000 this October. Al Qaeda has been driven from Afghanistan and its senior leadership has been decimated.

These are significant achievements, and they have created time and space for responsibility to be turned over to the Afghan people.

We still have national security interests in the region, and it is important that we work to accomplish our primary goal in Afghanistan to prevent al Qaeda and the Taliban from being in a position to threaten the United States and our allies. President Obama has laid out a responsible path to accomplish this goal and bring our troops home. We must continue to look for every opportunity to accelerate our timeline.

Smith is ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee.

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