Much desired troop withdrawal from Afghanistan won’t be all happy endings

Withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will likely result in tragic outcomes, especially for women and children. But keeping U.S. forces there to prevent those problems would take many years, an unacceptable amount of resources and, in any event, would not, even then, guarantee success. That’s the bottom-line message to be taken from Congresswoman Niki Tsongas’ conversation this morning with the New England Council.

A member of the House Armed Services Committee, Tsongas has made several trips to Afghanistan. She spoke glowingly of the positive impact that the United States has had on women. Prisons have been upgraded so women, many of them locked up simply for fleeing domestic violence, don’t have to be separated from their children. Jail now offers a standard of living better than they had outside prison walls.

Tsongas visited a site near the Pakistan border where more than a thousand girls are getting a good education at a school we helped organize. The students there speak, in English, of wanting to become teachers and doctors. Moved by what she saw, Tsongas said we “can’t walk away from Afghan” women, but, in effect, she’s prepared to do just that.

She supports President Obama’s plan to draw down U.S. forces there, which will probably involve just such a walking away. In fact, Tsongas supports an even more aggressive rate of troop withdrawal. Asked about the warnings from General David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert Gates that even the President’s proposed draw-down creates undesirable risk, Tsongas explained that, despite those officials’ initial statements, both conceded in testimony that achieving the ends we might desire could take “forever” and that we can never do enough to bolster the fragility of Afghan society and government. Indeed, she added, “if we do everything right in Afghanistan but Pakistan doesn’t do its part, it’s all for naught.”

Also vulnerable are the national security forces we are training. Many of the Afghan recruits are just 16 or 17 years old. A quarter of those recruited leave every year. It’s a “revolving door,” making the fragility of the nation building even more apparent. Contrast those perilous gains to the lifelong impact on Americans injured in serving there, for whose care we will be paying for the rest of their lives.

Given the impossibility of “victory” in Afghanistan, the killing of Osama bin Laden provides an opportune moment to leave there. The successful mission in April shows that we can deal effectively in a more targeted strategy than placing tens of thousands of ground troops in harm’s way. The real problem today in Afghanistan is not Al Qaeda but the Taliban. Think about the girls school that so impressed Congresswoman Tsongas.

The late Sally Goodrich of North Adams started a school for girls in Afghanistan as a tribute to her son Peter, killed in the second plane to crash into the World Trade Center on 9/11. She raised $236,000 and got the school up and running, also supporting two other schools and an orphanage. She had no illusions about prospects for Afghanistan. Eventually, in 2009, the Taliban bombed the area and overran the school. Goodrich initially went to Afghanistan broken-hearted and quite probably, after the school’s early success, left there broken-hearted. (Sally herself succumbed to cancer last fall.)

As others have learned before we did, the sad truth is: no matter how long the U.S. stays in Afghanistan, the Taliban can wait us out. The American people are out of time, money and patience. President Obama is right: we need to do some nation building here on the home front, not thousands of miles away in a place that lacks the will to govern itself according to our rules of law, and where we never really defined what the end game was to be.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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