A “Good Enough” Exit from Afghanistan

We don’t talk about “victory” any longer. In Afghanistan, we now talk about “good enough.”

And what does that mean? It means an exit that is politically acceptable to the American people, especially in an election year.

But, before we go any further, let’s doubleback to Iraq for a moment. Remember Iraq? All American combat troops were withdrawn last December, and security was left in the hands of the Iraqi army and police. Now, according to The New York Times, the multibillion-dollar program designed to train the Iraqi police, the biggest U.S. aid program since the Marshall Plan in post-WWII Europe, may come to a crashing halt in December of this year. The reasons are two-fold: the United States cannot afford it, and the Iraqis don’t want it. Apparently, they have had enough of the United States. With neighboring Iran now pushing its own candidate for the key job of Iraq’s top mullah, and with Syria, another neighbor, now crumbling into an ugly civil war, likely to spill over national borders, Iraq’s Shite leaders have begun to look inward, stressing their sovereignty and rearranging their national policies. They now see wisdom in sharply reducing their dependence on the United States, which is not the way the United States had imagined its post-war relations with Iraq. President George W. Bush thought he was building a true democracy in the Middle East, and President Barack Obama, who never approved of the Iraq War in the first place, just wanted to get out of there.

Now, back to Afghanistan, where recent developments in Iraq have relevance and resonance. During his first presidential campaign, Obama pledged that the United States would “win the war” in Afghanistan. But, over the last few years, as he has grappled with the dangers and complexities of the war, he has changed his mind and his policy. Now he wants out of there, too, but his explanatory rhetoric clearly lacks candor. When talking to American troops, he sounds positive and even optimistic. When he acts, though, he looks like a president hurrying to the nearest door. All combat troops—out by the end of December, 2014. All combat operations—over by December, 2013.

This weekend, NATO leaders will convene in Chicago to announce next steps. France’s newly-elected president, Francois Hollande, says he will withdraw all French forces by the end of this year. The British, in a second-dip recession, may soon come to the same decision. Everyone knows that Obama will reduce U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan to 68,000 by the end of this summer.

The Afghan War has become the longest in American history; and when the Afghans we have trained for their own self-defense turn their guns on us, that is a depressing signal that, like the Iraqis, they don’t want us there. Or, if they do, it is to be strictly on their terms. This year alone, 21 NATO troops have been killed by Afghans, trained and equipped by NATO. That’s 14% of total NATO casualties.

Who is kidding whom? Obama wants out but won’t say so. GOP candidate Romney wants to kill the Taliban until they surrender, which is most unlikely. And, after the experience in Vietnam, no American president wants to be sitting in the Oval Office while the United States loses another war.

Result: “good enough.” If the United States can somehow find an exit strategy that is politically acceptable to the American people, then it will seize it. Ask an American official for a clear definition of American policy in Afghanistan, and you are likely to hear the words “good enough.” And then you fill in the blanks.