Others’ Opinion: Military slowdown is sensible

Published 9:33 am Thursday, March 26, 2015

US right to stay in Afghanistan now, rather than returning later

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

Reflecting military realities and diplomatic possibilities, President Obama made the right call in slowing down the drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The president’s newfound flexibility gives Afghan troops more time to develop into a fighting force effective enough to not only operate independently, but to convince the Taliban to negotiate a settlement to the grinding conflict that continues to inflict horrific casualties.

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In a joint news conference with Obama, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani conceded the need to better prepare his forces and emphasized the necessity of peace talks. In style and substance, Ghani couldn’t be more different from his presidential predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who allegedly stuffed ballot boxes and cronies’ pockets during his feckless presidency. In contrast to Karzai, who once threatened to join the Taliban, Ghani repeatedly thanked U.S. troops — and taxpayers — for their sacrifices on behalf of his nation and pledged to end the corruption that corrodes Afghanistan’s future.

“Tragedy brought us together; interests now unite us,” Ghani said.

Obama acknowledged the new tone. “This flexibility reflects our reinvigorated partnership with Afghanistan,” he said. This reinvigoration (a restart, really) no doubt helped convince Obama to halt this year’s planned withdrawal of about half of the remaining 9,800 U.S. troops.

Obama did not, however, back off his pledge to withdraw all but about 1,000 troops by 2017. He needn’t — yet. But in making the case for keeping 2015 troop levels constant, he also said he wanted to keep his 2016 options open. The revised timeline is “so we don’t have to go back,” Obama said, adding, “so we don’t have to respond in an emergency because terrorist activities are being launched out of Afghanistan.”

Going back, tragically, is what’s happened with Iraq after almost all U.S. troops withdrew because Baghdad and Washington failed to reach a status-of-forces agreement. This, along with disastrous sectarian politics orchestrated by then-President Nouri al-Maliki, contributed to the creation of a vacuum that was filled by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which Ghani and other experts ominously warn is trying to gain an Afghan presence. Given the tenacity of the Taliban, which was willing to give safe harbor to Al-Qaida and other terrorists, it’s imperative to not repeat the tragedy.

“Reciprocating the gift means owning our problems, solving them and asking of ourselves what we must do for ourselves and for the region,” Ghani said. He’s right: This is an Afghan problem. But the United States, having lost more than 2,200 servicemen and -women and spent billions on the 14-year war so far, should make sure that Afghans can indeed solve those problems so that they don’t become a U.S. issue once again.