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September 9, 2012

Winning the War They Want to Forget

By

"You're fired."

No, we're not talking Donald Trump. We're talking Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has been slicing and dicing his national security team with gusto. On Aug. 28, he dismissed his national intelligence chief. Earlier that month, he'd dumped the defense and interior ministers.

Karzai has scant time to pull a new team together. Combat forces from the United States and other countries are headed for the exits. The plan is for the Afghan army and police forces to keep the Taliban, al Qaeda and all their buddies at bay.

Certainly that's the right aspiration. Clint Eastwood was right when he told an empty chair not to copy the Russians. But America's plan was never to mimic the Soviet scheme of creating a conquered client state. Our goal always was to leave a place where communities could protect themselves, secure their own future, and deny haven to terrorists who might threaten them and us. That is how Americans are supposed to walk away from war.

But Americans have grown increasingly frustrated -- understandably so -- over Afghan fractiousness and the still fragile state of security in the countryside. Sadly, it didn't have to be this way.

After announcing a "surge," President Obama gave commanders only half the troops they requested and half the time required to set the right conditions for a drawdown. Under the Pentagon's original plan, most of the coalition combat forces would have finished their job -- completely pushing the Taliban out of the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan -- by 2014. But by going in small, starting to leave too soon and announcing the retreat in prime time, Obama helped set the stage for the current state of Afghan affairs.

Unfortunately, there are no do-overs in war. And while many of us would love to just put Afghanistan behind us, it makes no sense to leave the job undone. If smokejumpers walk away from a still-smoldering forest too soon, they often see the flames come roaring back.

Serious people who know what they are talking about still believe this war can be won -- if the Afghans continue to build their own security and governance in the countryside. Here are some key indicators to help us tell whether the job is getting done.

Are Afghan security forces able to reduce the number of Taliban sanctuaries in the outback of Kandahar and Helmand provinces? Taliban leaders have been pushed mostly into the countryside in these, their native territories.

Is the road linking Kandahar to Kabul open for business? This route, linking the countryside to the capital, is an essential lifeline for economic development and governance.

Are security units on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border cooperating? Kabul, Washington and Islamabad won't be singing "All Together Now" anytime soon, but they need to work with each other to keep the bad guys from traipsing back and forth.

Are instances of Afghan police and military turning their guns on each other or on coalition troops declining? These cancerous incidents undermine the legitimacy, effectiveness and cohesion of the security forces. The U.S. and the Afghans must develop an integrated campaign to keep the incidents from becoming an epidemic.

Is Kabul mounting a credible anti-corruption campaign? Other countries are ready to drop more than $16 billion dollars of aid on Afghanistan. But that won't happen unless there is a serious effort to deal with high-level corruption.

If Washington spent more time focusing on these metrics -- rather than on hitting the exits "on time" -- the U.S. could end this war without increasing the prospect that its long shadow will follow us home.

First appeared in The Examiner.

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