Time to leave Afghanistan?

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By Rick Howell

    When Barack Obama ran for president he attracted a lot of support for his articulate and consistent opposition to the war in Iraq.

    Obama had been free of having to vote on the original war resolution. Therefore, he was able to maintain his 2002 position as Americans steadily turned against the alleged “pre-emptive” war in 2005 and thereafter.

    At the time, Afghanistan, when it was referred to at all, was called “the forgotten war.” The U.S. troop presence wasn’t nearly as large as in Iraq, and we knew that Al Qaeda and bin Laden had operated there and that the fundamentalist Muslim Taliban regime had given them support.

    The case for war in Iraq was much harder to make, and eventually unraveled. Few questioned the need for military action in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.

    But that is now changing, perhaps in some surprising ways. No less a defender of American militarism than conservative columnist George F. Will has said that it’s time for us to withdraw.

    As military commanders in Afghanistan seem ready to formally request more troops, a recent ABC/Washington Post poll showed public opposition to that standing at almost 2 to 1.

    Certainly, this summer was a bloody one for American troops there. We also witnessed the dubious spectacle of a presidential election that was almost surely rigged by the incumbent. Many see Hamid Karzai as nothing more than a U.S. puppet, leading a highly ineffective regime that controls very little territory outside his capital city.

    Yet President Obama, who got everything so right about the tragedy in Iraq, may be heading down a similarly tragic road in Afghanistan if he agrees to send more troops and keeps insisting on - as Bush did in Iraq - some traditional notion of “victory.”

    As George Will pointed out, Afghanistan is not known as “the graveyard of empires” for nothing. History has borne out that slogan. The Russians were the last empire to think they could tame a nation of caves, mountains, and other rugged terrain, but it didn’t work. We may be following down the same path.

    That’s why voices in Congress are starting to warn against more troops and urging the president to present a detailed “exit strategy” for Afghanistan, lest we become bogged down again.

    And where are the Afghan people in all this? Who knows? How do you measure what “the public” thinks in a nation that’s still as primitive as this one? One thing is for sure, though, we can’t win hearts and minds by killing civilians with our air strikes.

    Almost every month now, there’s a story about yet another NATO investigation into an air strike that killed innocent civilians, including women and children. Killing women and children is what terrorists do, isn’t it? That’s probably what the Afghan people are thinking.

    Yet, it can also be said that if the country were to return to complete rule by the Taliban, we could fully expect it to be little more than a terrorist training ground. Ultimately, that may be something we simply have to tolerate if we can’t make more progress soon.

    As a strong supporter of Barack Obama, I don’t want to see him suffer the legacy of George W. Bush, becoming a president who blindly believes in this war even if it becomes an obviously losing proposition to nearly everyone else.

    Obama may be realizing that himself. He recently said that while he still supports the war, he’s “not interested in being in Afghanistan just for the sake of being in Afghanistan.” It may, indeed, be time for this president to start thinking about a real exit strategy.

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Rick Howell, a Bedford native, is a member of the Roanoke City Democratic Committee, and can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.