It's Time to Leave Afghanistan

When the United States launched its post-September 11 military actions against Afghanistan, the George W. Bush administration issued to the Taliban a set of demands. The Taliban refused to comply, so we went to war. The conventional wisdom has been that the war isn't going well, but the death last week of Osama bin Laden is just the latest and most definitive sign that it's a war we've actually already won. Revisiting the demands Bush issued shows that we've achieved our main aims, and we can and should move expeditiously to reduce our military involvement there.

Here are Bush's original demands:

  • "Deliver to U.S. authorities all the leaders of al-Qaeda that hide in your land."
  • "Release all foreign national including American citizens you have unjustly imprisoned."
  • "Protect all journalists, diplomats, and aid workers in your country."
  • "Close immediately and permanently every terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and hand over every terrorist and every person in their support structure to appropriate authorities."
  • "Give the US full access to terrorist training camps so we make sure they are no longer operating."

Two key assumptions are at work here. One is that the Taliban was actively sheltering key al-Qaeda leaders. The other is that terrorist "training camps" operating in Afghanistan constituted a major threat against the United States. Neither of these is true anymore. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is under American custody at the detention center in Guantánamo Bay. Osama bin Laden is dead. Anwar al-Awlaki is in Yemen. And no terrorist training camps have been operating in Afghanistan for years.

What's more, that bin Laden was found and killed in a suburb of Islamabad, Pakistan, ought to underscore that physical control of Afghan territory is neither necessary nor sufficient to ensure America's safety.

We don't need a war in Afghanistan to stop people like bin Laden. We have the ability to strike deep inside the territory of foreign countries if necessary. The United States has both significant airpower and incredibly skilled special operations forces. There's no way for a high-value terrorist to operate openly without getting himself killed or captured. Similarly, we don't actually need the cooperation of any particular country's government to stop terrorists from running a training camp -- we can just take out the camp.

Bin Laden also didn't need a cooperative Taliban regime to stay hidden. A house in Pakistan was good enough.

Since his death, there's been a renewed bout of speculation as to whether he remained concealed thanks to the tacit or explicit assistance of some elements of the Pakistani government. But whatever the case may be, the kind of open defiance of the United States that characterized the prewar Taliban wasn't part of the picture. The ongoing military conflict in Afghanistan was, to an amazing extent, irrelevant to the killing of the man who precipitated it.

While the giant military deployment in Afghanistan doesn't play a crucial role in defending the United States from terrorism, it does complicate our foreign policy. In particular, we're caught in a feedback loop with the government of Pakistan. We don't trust it enough to give it the heads up before we send a Navy SEAL team into its territory to find the world's most wanted man. But we give Pakistan substantial military aid, in large part because without its cooperation, the mission in Afghanistan becomes logistically untenable. Removing troops from Afghanistan means the Pakistani government loses leverage over us and the tail will no longer be able to wag the dog in our bilateral relationship.

Most of all, if this isn't victory, what would victory look like? Sometimes, American policy in Afghanistan seems aimed at the odd idea that our troops can't leave the country until they've succeeded in killing everyone there who wants us to leave. It also doesn't make sense for us to be fighting to obtain a permanent military presence in a distant, impoverished, landlocked country. Nothing we can do can guarantee that no future regime in Afghanistan will play host to high-profile terrorist groups. But al-Qaeda has demonstrated an ability to get by without such a host, and we've demonstrated the ability to chase terrorists out of even the most remote areas. Our complacency in the face of al-Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan before 9/11 was a mistake, but with bin Laden dead, we can turn the page and say we've rectified that error. We've achieved what we went in to Afghanistan to achieve, and now it's time to start heading for the exit.

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