In the Arena

Leaving Afghanistan

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I agree with Les Gelb’s assessment that we can be out of most combat operations in Afghanistan by the beginning of 2013. (In fact, I made a similar proposal last January.) Here’s how it would work:

We give General Petraeus another fighting season, the summer of 2011, at close to full strength. He uses the time to solidify gains that have been made in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, and moves some of his troops north and east up the Afghan Ring Road to a more direct confrontation with the Pakistan-supported Haqqani network. Major withdrawals would begin at the end of the fighting season and continue through 2012.

By 2013, we’re down to a residual force of trainers for the Afghan National Army, plus intelligence and special forces operations. Gelb now posits that force at 25,000. (When we last talked about this, Les said 15,000. Whatever.)

The important thing is to keep building the Afghan National Army–which is pretty much the old Northern Alliance on steroids–as a counter-force willing and able to block the Taliban. And to keep our intelligence assets and drone operations in place to finish cleaning up the remnants of al-Qaeda, as well as to monitor the deteriorating situation in Pakistan. In the meantime, we should amp up regional diplomatic efforts–reconciliation with the Taliban, and a larger effort to get India and Pakistan into a more peaceable frame of mind. (They were close to a deal on Kashmir a few years ago.)

Finally, I believe we should take another serious look at how our humanitarian and economic aid is distributed in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It should continue, but there should be no illusions about the nature of both governments: it should be structured to avoid those inept, corrupt regimes as much as possible.

I’ve got my doubts about further military aid to Pakistan. It should be strictly conditioned on Pakistan doing the following things: stopping all aid to the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba and other terrorist groups, and arresting the leaders of those groups or giving us direct intelligence as to where they can be found (if we don’t have that information already, courtesy of the bin Laden document stash). Pakistan has helped us to find and kill some of those allied with al-Qaeda; it hasn’t helped us find or kill others –the terrorists who support the Afghan Taliban or continue attacks on our most important ally and trading partner in the region, India.

President Bush said it at the very beginning: Our enemies are those who fund or harbor terrorists. Pakistan does both. Its military leadership can’t expect the U.S. to send billions so that they, in turn, can continue funding theĀ  terrorists who kill our troops in Afghanistan and civilians in India. It was probably a mistake for both Presidents Bush and Obama to overlook this in the first place–but there was a rationale: our most important work was to find and kill bin Laden and we thought the Pakistanis might help us with that. They didn’t. Now, the intelligence reaped in that operation may further diminish our need to indulge the Pakistanis in their double-games. We don’t want Pakistan to be our enemy–but they shouldn’t want to be our enemy, either, and they’ve certainly not been behaving as a real friend should.