It’s time for us to end the war in Afghanistan

When a U.S. Army staff sergeant allegedly walked off his base in southern Afghanistan and murdered 17 civilians, his solitary act recast the debate over the war in Afghanistan. The shooting spree occurred just weeks after copies of the Quran were accidentally burned by American troops at a different base. These two unrelated incidents are a stark reminder that after years of combat, diplomacy and aid, American goodwill can be undone in a matter of minutes.  

For most of the last decade, the war in Afghanistan has been a tale of two missions. The American military and its coalition partners, acting in concert with Afghan police and armed forces, have routed al Qaeda and engaged in a protracted fight with Taliban insurgents throughout the country. This military mission has been costly and painful, but increasingly successful with the number and quality of Afghan army troops improving, and the territories controlled by the Taliban receding.

The problem has been in holding these cleared areas, rebuilding them and re-establishing accountable governance. That is primarily the mission of the civilian Afghan government, and much of the blame for the inability to stabilize the country must be laid at the feet of the country’s leaders who have failed their own people. While Afghanistan’s ethnic makeup and the legacy of decades of war and civil conflict would be daunting challenges to any government, the regime of Hamid Karzai has squandered the goodwill and largess of the international community. Endemic corruption has resulted in the diversion of hundreds of millions of dollars of assistance, has undermined, perhaps fatally, public confidence in the central government and has fueled support for the Taliban. 

But it is Pakistan, our putative ally, and its leaders’ strategic decision to give sanctuary to the most deadly insurgents of the Haqqani Network that is the biggest impediment to progress in Afghanistan. As long as Pakistan’s intelligence service and elements of the military continue to offer aid and sanctuary to the Taliban, there can be no conclusive military end to either the Taliban or the conflict there.

After 10 long years, it is time to recognize three painful truths of the Afghan conflict — Pakistan will continue to give sanctuary to our enemies, reform of the Afghan government will take decades, not years, and as long as we have large numbers of American troops in Afghanistan, the constant drumbeat of civilian casualties will continue to poison Afghan sentiment against the United States and the Afghan government. The murder of 17 Afghans was a horrible aberration, but the inadvertent death of civilians is an unavoidable consequence of insurgent warfare.

It is time, too, to face squarely the increasing toll the war is having on our own troops, the most magnificent group of men and women ever assembled. Twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, multiple deployments, strained family and financial pressures upon troops’ return and some of the most serious medical and emotional challenges among our veterans compel us to see that the true impact of our anti-insurgency strategy has not been to avoid injury to America, but to concentrate that injury on our service members and their families.

When President Obama announced in late 2009 that he would be increasing American troop strength, he did so in order to create conditions for Afghan national leaders, provincial officials and tribal elders to engage in the political dialogue and peacemaking that are the necessary preconditions to a power-sharing agreement that might have ended the fighting. Instead, Karzai and other Afghans have spent the last 16 months jockeying for position, dividing the spoils and preparing for the day they will turn on each other.

With Osama bin Laden and most of his leadership cadre dead and gone, the best policy now would be to accelerate the transition of our Afghan mission to one focused on training, support and a limited special-operations capability to prevent the re-emergence of a sustained al Qaeda presence. Our goal is not to prevent an attack on America from that country alone — we are engaged in a global struggle with al Qaeda — but to protect ourselves from an attack emanating from any territory. The all-consuming needs of our large military presence in Afghanistan exact a price too high to bear, too improbable of achieving its goals and too diverting from growing threats elsewhere.

Schiff is a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence and the subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs of the House Appropriations Committee.