President Barack Obama's military advisers plan on the U.S. and its NATO allies ending combat operations in Afghanistan perhaps as soon as mid-2013, a year and a half early.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan have already been reduced from 100,000 to 90,000, and another 22,000 are due home this fall.
The role of most of the remaining 68,000 U.S. forces would be to support and train Afghan soldiers, but leave any fighting to them. Washington would be willing to leave beyond 2014 a residual force to provide air power, logistics, supplies and training, but that would require permission from the Afghan government. The Iraqi government said no to a similar offer, and we were out by the end of last year — except for a small force to help guard the U.S. embassy.
The Obama administration's numerous critics say it erred in proposing this revised date, that this only encourages Taliban forces — who, depending on which intelligence estimate you read, either are or are not on the run — to hold out.
But this ignores an obvious fact: The Taliban live there. They may hide out in Pakistan and the drones may have taken a terrible toll on their leadership, but they have always known that sooner or later we would leave. It was a simple matter of hiding the AK-47 and picking up a hoe until we did.
In the barest terms, we have accomplished our basic objectives. Osama bin Laden and his top aides are dead. Al-Qaida has been crushed. The Afghan government that gave the 9/11 plotters sanctuary has been routed and dispersed, and its leader, Mullah Omar, dare not emerge from hiding in Pakistan, even after we leave.
As in Iraq, the government we leave behind was better than the dictatorship we found. But Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that our ability to establish democracies in ethnically divided countries with no history of democracy is limited.