But the question now facing the West, especially in a time of tremendous financial pressure in most Western capitals, is whether continued exertion will continue to yield further rewards. It is increasingly difficult to make that case. There is little reason to believe (indeed, there is evidence to the contrary) that a continued NATO military presence in Afghanistan has had a positive impact on the society.
Some Afghans have no doubt benefited from Western development aid or medical treatment, but there are few who doubt that Afghanistan’s traditional, sectarian culture won’t immediately reassert itself once Western military forces depart. In one telling example, approximately 1,500 English-speaking Afghans, who worked with the Canadian military as translators, were so fearful of what Afghanistan is and will remain that they applied for refugee status in Canada, hoping their work with that country’s military might get them to the front of the line — and for 550 of them, it worked. That these brave Afghans have so little faith in their country’s future should be a wake-up call to the West.
Since there is little, if any, hope of transforming Afghanistan into even a semi-functional Western-style democracy, and corruption and violence will remain the norm, the time is right to begin planning a Western withdrawal. The pullout need not be rushed, and perhaps not absolute. The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer was right when he recently noted the strategic utility of the American military presence in Afghanistan, calling it “the base from which we have freedom of action to strike Jihad Central in Pakistan and the border regions.” But the American military can maintain some presence there, and continue to train the Afghan security forces in the hopes that they might keep a lid on the local Islamists, while conceding that any notion of nation-building is off the table and unworkable.
Proposing that concession may have political risks. The leader to announce that America was withdrawing from Afghanistan, or drawing down forces to a minimal level required to strike terrorist camps and train the local forces, would run the risk of being accused of overseeing defeat. And there may be outrage from humanitarian and international groups that would characterize such a step as conceding the future of Afghanistan’s women and children to the brutal rule of tribal warlords and Islamists. But the decision to withdraw would be the right one, because remaining will do nothing to prevent that same sad outcome.
Bin Laden is dead. Al-Qaeda injured. The Afghan security forces are developing the ability to operate independently. It’s time for the West to start planning its exit.
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