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Abrupt Afghanistan departure would guarantee disaster

Chicago Tribune editorial:

The U.S. war in Afghanistan has had many ups and downs, but few days have been worse than Sunday, when an American Army sergeant allegedly went door to door in a village, fatally shooting 16 civilians, including nine children.

It’s the sort of shock that prompts both Americans and Afghans to ask what we are doing there. “If things keep going in this direction, we are really at the end of the road,” said Shukria Barakzai, head of the defense committee in the parliament. “The last couple of months, I’ve been more concerned about our ability to accomplish the mission in Afghanistan than I have in a long time,” said Mark Jacobson, who served as a NATO official in Afghanistan.

This incident was awful enough, but it’s only the latest in a demoralizing series. In the category of American offenses, U.S. troops carelessly burned Qurans, Afghan civilians were killed after being mistaken for Taliban fighters and video caught Marines urinating on enemy corpses.

Deeply troubling for the U.S.: Several American military personnel have been murdered by members of the Afghan security forces, who are supposed to be our allies. U.S. soldiers face a significantly higher level of risk when they can’t trust the Afghans who are supposed to be working with them.

All this betrays a battered relationship that threatens to collapse entirely. The level of suspicion between Afghans and Americans will complicate the U.S. task for training Afghan forces to take over full responsibility for security. The anger and fear among ordinary Afghans impedes the military’s effort to establish trust at the village level.

Meanwhile, the enemy can only gain from these unforced errors. One Western official told The Economist magazine, “If I were the Taliban spokesman I’d just sit back in a cave and do nothing, and leave it all to us.”

But what’s happened shouldn’t alter our central mission in Afghanistan: to establish a stable government with a measure of public support and the means to keep the Taliban from regaining the power they wielded so savagely. Neither the Obama administration nor President Hamid Karzai’s government has any good choice but to soldier on in the hope of better days ahead.

What’s easy to overlook is how much progress has been made. Afghan security forces have grown to more than 300,000. They take the lead role in 40 percent of military operations, Ivo Daalder, U.S. ambassador to NATO, recently told the Tribune editorial board. Every day, coalition and Afghan units work together in ventures that don’t make the news.

A recent Brookings Institution assessment concluded that the existing plan “is working better than many people believe.” It noted that in the south, where coalition forces have focused their efforts, violence is down significantly, and most of the area “has been cleared of important insurgent sanctuaries, weapons caches and IED (improvised explosive device) fields.”

Besides, no one has a plausible alternative to the current policy. The reasons the administration doesn’t plan to complete the drawdown of American forces until the end of 2014 remain valid: A hasty withdrawal would plunge Afghanistan into violent chaos. It would give the Taliban a victory they have not been able to win on the battlefield. It would saddle the U.S. with responsibility for the grim fate of Afghans who have put their faith in us.

The prospects for a good outcome have dimmed in recent weeks. After a decade of involvement in Afghanistan, Americans have to know that they are in danger of exhausting the patience of the people we are trying to help. Afghans must realize they can’t waste time getting ready to take responsibility for their country.

The U.S. commitment in Afghanistan comes with no assurance of success. Reversing it, however, would guarantee failure.

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