Afghanistan: the long goodbye

Council for a Livable World Executive Director John Isaacs and Brigadier General John H. Johns (U.S. Army, ret.) published an op-ed in the Richmond Times Dispatch regarding President Obama's recent speech on troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. This piece was originally published on July 16, 2011.

President Barack Obama recently announced that American troops would begin coming home from Afghanistan. He said 10,000 soldiers would leave this year and 23,000 by September 2012.

The president's decision was a positive step, but merely a first step.

Under this new policy, U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan until at least the end of 2014, another two and a half years.

The U.S. war in Afghanistan is already the longest in our history, surpassing even the Vietnam War. The U.S. is mired in a civil war where the government has little legitimacy, the military situation is stalemated and the political and economic situation remains dismal.

Thousands of American and allied personnel have been killed or gravely wounded, and in two and a half years, that toll will mount.

It is not at all clear what the United States will be able to accomplish in the additional time that we have not been able to pull off in the last decade. The president failed to explain why 70,000 troops will be any more successful than the 100,000 troops we now have in the country.

Fewer than 1 percent of Americans are being asked to make sacrifices for this war, directly or indirectly. Since Americans are not being asked to pay for the war, it is adding more than $100 billion a year to our debt while important domestic programs are being cut.

To his credit, the president resisted the intense pressure from military leaders to make only token withdrawals.

But by choosing a narrow path between supporters and opponents of the war, the president is continuing the war policy but just with smaller forces.

The pressure to terminate our military involvement in that region is growing. Recently, House Democrats and Republicans united against the war in Afghanistan for the first time in a vote on the amendment offered by Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Walter Jones, R-N.C., requiring the president to establish a timeline for the transition of U.S. military operations to the government of Afghanistan. Although the amendment was defeated by a narrow 204-215 vote, the amendment produced the most votes ever to end the war.

In the Senate, 27 senators signed a letter to President Obama circulated by Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Tom Udall, D-N.M., asking for a sizable and sustained reduction of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan.

The chairmen of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., both strongly recommended changing course in Afghanistan.

The front-running Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, said at a recent GOP debate: "It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can."

The American people have clearly come to the conclusion that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable. A June Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 73 percent of Americans say Obama should withdraw a "substantial number" of combat troops from Afghanistan this summer.

Now that the president has made the first step of reversing course, he should complete the job by bringing home the remaining American forces as quickly as he can.

John H. Johns, brigadier general, U.S. Army (ret.), served 26 years as a combat arms officer, with many of his assignments focused on counterinsurgency strategy and doctrine. He retired in 1978. John Isaacs is executive director of Council for a Livable World, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.