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It's time to face reality: US must leave Afghanistan

It's time to face reality: US must leave Afghanistan
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Now that yet another attempt to conclude a peace agreement that would permit the United States and NATO to withdraw forces from Afghanistan has failed, we must face reality at long last.  The Trump administration tried to avoid the fact that its deal with the Taliban is on life support, but it’s clear to close observers that Taliban attacks on Afghan forces are increasing at a serious rate and discussions between the Taliban and the Afghan government are going nowhere. It’s time to administer last rites.  

It was a noble effort by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to try to negotiate an agreement that would permit coalition forces to execute an orderly withdrawal from a bad situation that exhibits no prospect for improvement. Despite our best efforts for two decades, at an estimated cost of $2 trillion, to promote a democratically elected government supported by a majority of the population, the national elections held last September failed to meet even this minimum standard.  

Various analyses of the results indicate voter turnout could have been as low as 26 percent. Voter fraud was so bad that, ultimately, only an estimated 1.8 million votes were counted out of  9.6 million registered voters. President Ashraf Ghani declared victory, although his main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, has refused to concede the election. And in a truly bizarre turn of events, on March 9 both had themselves sworn in as president. This situation of dueling presidencies continues to this day, leaving the Taliban and other parties who seek to negotiate terms wondering which president to consult.

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All of this leaves the Afghan government in an even weaker position, characterized by instability, rampant corruption, feeble institutions unable to deliver necessary services, and an economy heavily dependent on the drug trade and American and international aid. Since 2018, the quarterly assessments by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) have been so negative concerning progress that the information SIGAR is permitted to make available for public access has been restricted. 

The main thing about beating your head against a wall is that it feels so good when you stop.  Concluding an agreement that can be accepted by all the disparate parties in Afghanistan is probably just not possible. There are personalities and groups on all sides who don’t want a peace treaty because they believe they can gain the end state they desire by continuing to fight.  

To be honest, I’ve been against a long-term commitment in Afghanistan since we drove out the Taliban government in 2001. Supported by our Afghan allies, we successfully upended the situation that permitted al Qaeda a safe environment to plot the attacks on 9/11. Frankly, the smart play then would have been to put an Afghan strongman in charge and leave. Instead, 19 years later, we continue to say we will stay until a stable Afghan government is in place with enough domestic support and cohesion to control the country and prevent it from becoming a platform for launching terrorist attacks. I challenge you to find when, in the long history of Afghanistan, there has been such an effective and stable government.

The reality is that Afghanistan is a tribal society that always has been ruled by regionally based tribal leaders and warlords, with a relatively weak central government in Kabul. As long as the authorities in Kabul didn’t interfere too much with the regional leaders, they were tolerated.  Talking heads tell us if we pull out now, chaos will ensue. Whether we leave now, next month, next year, or in 10 years, the end result will be the same. Various factions will continue fighting until a new equilibrium emerges and an Afghan solution is put in place. The difference will be that the United States won’t continue flushing billions of dollars down the drain and placing our young people at risk for no good reason.

Last September, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rages against '60 Minutes' for interview with Krebs Cornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Pa. lawmaker was informed of positive coronavirus test while meeting with Trump: report MORE ended a tweet with the plaintive phrase: “How many more decades are they willing to fight?” We should ask, how many more decades are we willing to fight — and for what achievable purpose?

John Fairlamb, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Army colonel with a military career spanning 45 years, with significant time in a variety of Joint Service positions formulating and implementing national security strategies and policies. He earned his doctorate in comparative defense policy analysis.