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Mission Accomplished

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
May 9, 2011
Wall Street Journal

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Afghanistan is no longer a war about vital American security interests. It is about the failure of America's political elites to face two plain facts: The al Qaeda terrorist threat is no longer centered in that ancient battleground, and the battle against the Taliban is mainly for Afghans themselves.

With Osama bin Laden now swimming with the fishes, the U.S. has but one sensible path: to draw down U.S. forces to 15,000-25,000 by the end of 2013, try cutting a deal with the Taliban, and refocus American power in the region on containment, deterrence and diplomacy.

There might be better words to say this, but Mission Accomplished—as much as necessary and possible. The killing of bin Laden highlights that his al Qaeda operation in Afghanistan is in threads. By all intelligence and military accounts, they are down to fewer than 200 faithful. Extending a major land war indefinitely to kill every last one of them would be hideously wasteful. Thus the original mission is effectively accomplished.

The U.S. beef is not with the Taliban. It was over their hosting al Qaeda, and now there is little to host. If the Taliban are prepared to restrict their fight to Afghanistan, stopping them from regaining power inside their own country is most certainly not vital to the United States.

A second reason to demote Afghanistan as a strategic priority is that the terrorist threat has morphed since 9/11. A decade ago, the terrorist threat to America was centered in Afghanistan. Today the CIA wrings its hands far more about terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, London—or Newark.

Then there's Pakistan. Presidents Bush and Obama have both argued that Afghanistan's fate would have a profound bearing on Pakistan's. But that argument has exploded. As circumstances have improved recently in Afghanistan, they have deteriorated in Pakistan. The fate of Pakistan, which has a powerful army and five times more people than Afghanistan, rests almost entirely in its own hands.

Everyone agrees that NATO cannot win in Afghanistan without the help of Pakistan, yet Islamabad seems intent on making NATO lose. Mostly, Pakistan keeps the Taliban and al Qaeda going with arms, intelligence, money and safe havens. Despite Islamabad's incessant lying about these matters, it will collect $3 billion in U.S. aid this year alone. Add to this the near certainty that Pakistani leaders sheltered Osama bin Laden and lied about that, too.

The ugly truth is that Washington lacks a viable Afghan partner. Kabul is corrupt and inept. Its security forces seem less willing to fight and die for their country than are the far less numerous Taliban. "Our" Afghans can't dodge this issue by wailing about an imminent American withdrawal. The U.S. has hung in there for 10 years, and counting, at a cost of over half a trillion dollars and 1,500 American lives.

The United States can never compensate for Afghanistan's shortcomings. U.S. military valor and skill can continue producing marginal gains, but it will never permanently persuade the country's Pashtun majority to break with its Taliban brethren.

The common-sense response to this hell hole is for the U.S. and NATO to complete their combat withdrawals by the beginning of 2013—not by the end of 2014 as now planned. That's sufficient time for friendly Afghans to prepare themselves. Besides, upwards of 25,000 NATO forces could remain for a period to help with training, logistics, intelligence and counterterrorist operations.

In addition, Kabul and Washington should cross their fingers and try to expedite a deal with the Taliban. Good luck here is not the best bet, nor is expecting the Taliban to keep their word. But it's worth continuing to try. Perhaps with bin Laden gone and recent prospects of renewed political power on offer, the Taliban might feel less obliged toward al Qaeda.

It's essential to build a policy to contain extremists and terrorists in Afghanistan's neighborhood, and natural allies (to varying degrees) would include India, China, Russia and even Iran. They share U.S. interests in combating violent religious fanatics and the drug trade. U.S. ships should remain in the region to launch missile attacks and antiterrorist commando raids for purposes of deterrence and punishment.

These measures could unbind U.S. diplomacy to wheel and deal as needed in Western Asia. President Nixon and Henry Kissinger did as much when they untangled themselves from Vietnam and redirected U.S. policy to the rest of Asia, and in particular to China. The result was startling and unambiguous: Within a few years, the U.S. position in Asia was stronger than at any time since the end of World War II. Now President Obama must remove the Afghan chains and focus on the Middle East and China.

There is a deeper reason still for extricating ourselves from Afghanistan: America itself. The United States simply cannot afford to squander more time and resources for a nonvital Afghanistan before the core of U.S. power and freedom—the American economy—begins an irreversible decline. The ultimate danger is not that we will lose Afghanistan but that we will lose America.

Mr. Gelb, author of "Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy" (HarperCollins, 2009), is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former official at the State and Defense departments.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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