EDITORIAL: US withdrawal doesn't define victory in Afghanistan

A flag-lowering ceremony in Kabul this past weekend signaled the official end of Operation Enduring Freedom — America’s 13-year war on terror in Afghanistan.

But the reality is that the war is not over, and Americans shouldn’t act like it is.

Though al-Qaida, the architects of the 9/11 attacks and other terrorist plots, has been partly dismantled and the Taliban is a shadow of its former self, extremism still has a foothold in the war-torn nation.

Barbarians hoping to keep the nation stuck in the Dark Ages already have been emboldened by America’s drawdown. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid referred to the weekend flag-lowering event as a “defeat ceremony” and vowed the insurgents’ fight would continue.

Afghanistan, as a nation, is not yet in a position to stand on its own. The country’s fledgling government remains mired in corruption, and its national economy is almost entirely dependent on foreign aid and illegal drug exports.

Unless the United States wants to see the country go the way of Iraq — overrun by extremists after a full U.S. withdrawal — the American people and their leaders should steel themselves for a long-term commitment to establishing peace and stability.

And, really, shouldn’t that be the ultimate sign of victory?

Anything less would practically guarantee Afghanistan’s return to a robust terrorist haven within a decade.

Recall that it took less than five years for the Taliban to fill the vacuum left by the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. A complete withdrawal by U.S. and NATO forces would create a similar opportunity for extremists to exploit.

What a dreadful end to a war that cost 2,200 American lives and $750 billion.

That’s why the United States isn’t cutting out of Afghanistan, just cutting back.

The task of stabilizing the country — part of Enduring Freedom’s transition to Operation Resolute Support — may prove to be every bit as difficult as the decade long struggle to root out terrorists and push back insurgents.

About 11,000 U.S. forces and 2,000 NATO personnel will remain in the country to advise Afghan forces, a substantial amount but far fewer than 140,000 troops in country at the operation’s peak in 2010.

The Status of Forces Agreement between Afghanistan and the United States gives the Afghan army the option to enlist the help of coalition forces when needed, so combat and counterterrorism missions are still on the table for American troops when times get tough.

President Obama, who vowed to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, told U.S. troops stationed at the Marine Corps Base in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, over the weekend that their service had given Afghanistan a chance “to rebuild its own country.

“We are safer,” Obama said. “It’s not going to be a source of terrorist attacks again.”

Really? That’s a lofty promise, and one that’s profoundly difficult to fulfill.

If America truly is going to finish the job in Afghanistan, it will involve helping Afghanistan undertake the herculean task of healing its many, many wounds.

Updated: 
01/07/2015 - 1:14pm

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