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President Obama announced a sound policy Monday for the calculated and gradual withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan. In doing so, he wisely ignored critics on the left and right.
Voices on the left have called for an immediate retreat of all American forces from Afghanistan. While that might be politically popular among an American electorate tired of this long war - and so, advantageous to Democratic prospects in the coming mid-term elections - it could prove dangerously destabilizing for Afghanistan as it goes through a transition in leadership.
Likewise, the president rejected the screech of conservative hawks who would be appeased with nothing less than an open-ended military commitment by the United States. They would keep U.S. forces in place until assured Afghanistan can remain sound and secure without them. It is an unreasonable standard, one that would take many more years to achieve, if ever.
What the president plans instead is a winding down of combat operations and the withdrawal of 32,000 troops by December, returning these volunteer soldiers, many who have served in multiple deployments, back to their families.
Remaining would be a residual force of 9,800 U.S. troops. This contingent would include Special Operation forces for counterterrorism missions and troops to train and advise the Afghan military. The plan is to then cut that number in half by the end of 2015, and finally down to a small contingent by the end of 2016, capable of protecting the U.S Embassy and other assets.
The schedule provides time for the next Afghan president to become established in office. Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani face a runoff election June 14 to succeed President Hamid Karzai. Unlike Mr. Karzai, both Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Ghani say, if elected, they will sign the security agreement allowing a continued U.S. presence.
Certainly, there was some political calculation in President Obama's plan. The 9,800 number is symbolically more attractive than the 10,000 to 12,000 recommended by Gen. Joseph Dunford, the commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan. The plan to shrink to a small security force by the end of 2016 lines up conveniently with the end of President Obama's term in office.
Overall, however, it is a sensible plan.
Some have tried to strike a comparison with the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989, ending a 10-year occupation. Feeding the Soviet military's frustration was clandestine U.S. military support for radical Islamic resistance fighters. Satisfied with the Soviet defeat, the United States did nothing to support a war-torn Afghanistan. The Taliban fighters filled the leadership void. The country suffered mightily under their extreme religious rule, which provided a fertile training ground for al-Qaida, leading to the 9/11 attacks.
In contrast, the United States military prepares to depart a much stronger country. For a decade, the GDP has grown an average of 9.4 percent annually. About 65 percent of the population has access to health services, up seven-fold from 2002. The number of children receiving an education has also grown dramatically, particularly among girls. A cell-phone network now reaches about 90 percent of the population.
Afghans embraced the recent elections, which went off relatively smoothly, due to security provided largely by domestic forces. The vast majority of Afghans support these positive changes and do not want to go back.
Still, there will be problems as outside forces withdraw. Rural villages in particular remain vulnerable to Taliban and other radical forces. Corruption in government is rampant, as is the opium trade. However, securing a future must ultimately be left to Afghans.
Some critics have said the president should not be so specific with the withdrawal plan and that conditions in Afghanistan should determine the pace of the drawdown, not a preordained timetable. Yet after the investment of so much blood and treasure, Americans deserve to understand the end game in Afghanistan. The president always reserves the option to change course if conditions change significantly.
Americans should embrace the president's plan for finally bringing an end to U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan.