For my print column this week, which TIME subscribers can find here, I decided to check in with some of the military veterans I wrote about last summer my “New Greatest Generation” cover story–especially the sergeants–to see how they were reacting to the news of the alleged massacre perpetrated by Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. Not surprisingly, they were disturbed by headlines like “Sergeant Psycho” and the deepening, and outrageous, stereotype that most veterans coming back from the wars are damaged or unstable. But there was also a near-unanimous consensus that the war in Afghanistan had gone on too long and should be wound down as quickly as possible.
Eric Greitens, the former Navy SEAL who runs The Mission Continues, which gives fellowships to returning veterans who have good ideas for public service, said that at the very least, the Obama Administration owes the troops a clearer explanation of what the mission now is. I’d go farther than that. For more than a year now, I’ve favored a more rapid draw-down than Obama has proposed, which would have most combat troops out of Afghanistan by this time next year. A residual force should be left, if the Afghans agree, to help train and support the Afghan National Army, and also to continue special operations and surveillance of the Taliban areas on the Af/Pakistan border. (If the Afghans don’t agree, these operations can be conducted, in a more limited way, from ships in the Indian Ocean.)
With the near-destruction of Al Qaeda, our troops are sitting in the midst of a civil war between the southern Pashtuns and a melange of Northern ethnic groups that has been going on, intermittently, for centuries. Our only interest in this fight is to make sure that the Taliban don’t retake Kabul–and I suspect that the amped-up Afghan National Army, which is primary composed of non-Pashtuns, will be more than happy to carry that fight. But that is not a fight worth the sacrifice of one more American life, limb or mind. It’s time to bring this to a close.