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In Afghanistan, Path to Lasting Success Will Also Be the Hardest

Authors: Janine Davidson, and Emerson Brooking, Research Associate, Defense Policy
April 7, 2014
Council on Foreign Relations

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Afghanistan's April 5 elections were well attended, successful, and – most importantly – relatively safe. According to preliminary reports, the Taliban did not launch a single major attack from the time polls opened to the time they closed. The most striking concern was not a failure in security (there were 140 attacks this year, compared to 500 in 2009), but rather a shortage of ballots. While often indicative of vote tampering, this also revealed the zeal with which Afghans went to the polls.

Although many weeks of vote tallying, debate, and a likely runoff lie ahead, by all accounts, this weekend represented the turn of a major page in Afghanistan. However, for a growing number of U.S. policymakers and an increasingly skeptical American public, this success comes as too little, too late. As the debate over the United States' post-2014 involvement in Afghanistan intensifies, the "zero option" of total force withdrawal is set to gain more political momentum.

Those U.S. commanders making the case for a reasonable residual presence of at least 10,000 advisers through 2014 and beyond face steep resistance. The war in Afghanistan is now arguably the most unpopular conflict in American history. A December CNN poll found that support for the war has dipped below 20 percent. After 2,316 American, 1,116 Coalition, and roughly 18,000 Afghan civilian fatalities; cumulative spending of more than $600 billion dollars; an often obstinate Karzai government; and nearly thirteen years of continuous fighting, there is ample argument for the United States to simply cut its losses and leave.

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