President Hamid Karzai's corrupt and irresponsible leadership has created a debate between U.S. hawks who don't want to "cut and run" and war-weary Americans who want out. President Obama can do both.
Pull out. Don't cut and run.
The case for withdrawal was made by Obama in his two presidential campaigns and supported by most voters. Nearly 13 years after Afghanistan nested the 9/11 attackers, it's time to stop the loss of American life and treasure while attempting to stay relevant enough in the region to protect direct national security interests.
Obama wants to construct a limited mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces – and attacking remnants of al-Qaida. The United States had reached an agreement with the Afghan government on such a mission, but Karzai reneged on the pact and refuses to sign it.
Obama responded as he should, telling Karzai in a phone call Tuesday that he had ordered the U.S. military to begin planning for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. The only way to prevent full retreat, Obama suggested, was for Karzai or his replacement to approve the limited-mission accord.
New York Times reporters Mark Landler and Helene Cooper, citing a senior administration official, reported that Obama "was sending a message to Mr. Karzai that there would be a cost to further delays, both in the rising chance that the United States might go down to zero troops and in the more limited size and scope of a residual force."
At the same time, Obama retreated from its earlier insistence that the Afghan government sign the accord before the nation's April elections. The president hopes his maneuvering might have nudged Karzai's successor to embrace the agreement. The chances of that happening are incalculable given Afghan's unpredictable political system.
The choice now lies with Afghanistan: Cooperate on a limited mission or kiss U.S. forces goodbye. Time to take your country back. We need to focus on ours.
Olivier Knox of Yahoo News reminded me today of a December 2008 press conference in which Karzai, standing with Bush, described the relationship between Washington and Kabul in the most cynical of terms:
"Afghanistan will not allow the international community [to] leave it before we are fully on our feet," Karzai said, "before we are strong enough to defend our country, before we are powerful enough to have a good economy, and before we have taken from President Bush and the next administration billions and billions of more dollars — no way that they can let you go."
Yes we can, sir. Yes we can.
Why not "cut and run"? Because, no matter what Obama does, it's too late to use that slur against the United States, a country that has already sacrificed the lives of more than 2,000 military personnel, with another 17,000-plus wounded in action, during more than a dozen years of fighting in Afghanistan. The war will ultimately cost between $4 trillion and $6 trillion, a huge burden on a U.S. treasury swamped in red ink. Some context: Years ago, Lawrence Lindsey was kicked out of President George W. Bush's Cabinet for estimating that the Iraq war would cost between $100 billion and $200 billion. That figure, called wildly inflated at the time, now looks like chump change.
If this is "cutting and running," our biggest mistake may be in not retreating sooner.
CORRECTION: Initial version of this story did not make clear that Lindsey was referring to Iraq.