Click here if you don’t see subscription options
The EditorsSeptember 13, 2010

The Taliban, according to a cover story in Time on July 29, ordered the nose of 19-year-old Bibi Aisha cut off to punish her for fleeing her husband’s family, where she was being abused. Later they shot 10 aid workers and stoned to death a young couple who had eloped. If NATO leaves Afghanistan, many tell us, such atrocities will continue. But Aisha’s husband, not the Taliban, cut off her nose; and the almost 100,000 foreign troops have failed to reform brutal tribal customs during the nine years they have fought there.

Meanwhile, civilian casualties rise. The U.S. policy is to avoid killing civilians, even at risk to our troops; but recent reports of 52 people, mainly women and children, killed in the Helmand province—condemned as “morally and humanly unacceptable” by President Hamid Karzai—and another 32 a week later, demonstrate that drones and rockets fail to distinguish sufficiently between the enemy and the innocent. According to U.N. reports, in 2009 the great majority of the 2,412 civilian victims were killed by insurgents; 596 were killed by the United States, mostly by air strikes. Nevertheless, local polls show that Afghans, particularly in the villages, blame the foreigners for civilian deaths.

Each week the parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam become more vivid: the corrupt America-sponsored government; our troops bogged down in a hostile culture and terrain; our military leadership plugged into its “can do” philosophy; our domestic economy stretched to the breaking point; a public uninformed and unconvinced of the war’s necessity; and a president stuck with a premature decision to fight and determined not to become, in Richard Nixon’s words, “the first president to lose a war.”

Americans must face the fact that we cannot control the world. Given the current burdens on our military and our economic problems, we cannot remake a nation in our image.

Afghanistan will attempt a congressional election in September, and President Obama will re-evaluate our strategy in December. The consensus is growing that he should spell out an exit strategy. Gen. David Petraeus told President Obama last November that if political conditions did not improve in 18 months he would not suggest we stay longer. Mr. Obama should hold him to that commitment.

That we are in Afghanistan fighting Al Qaeda to prevent another 9/11 is a delusion. None of the culprits in the terrorist attacks that day were Afghans. Today Al Qaeda membership in Afghanistan is estimated to be below 100. If we stay longer, we may kill more Taliban leaders; but there is a high probability that younger and more radical people will replace them.

We should focus on negotiating a way out, with an exit strategy that involves every country with a stake in Afghanistan’s future—including Pakistan, India, China, Russia and Iran—with the understanding that no neighboring state may dominate. It should require a plan to administer the development of the $1 trillion in un-mined mineral deposits—iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium—which, if the wealth is equitably distributed, could benefit the whole nation. Afghanistan, once a stop on the Silk Road, could become a land bridge joining Central Asia, South Asia and the Persian Gulf.

The United States prides itself that it has stimulated some social progress in Afghanistan: growth in school attendance, especially by girls; wider health care; and more radio and television stations, cell phones and Internet users. But Afghanistan’s needs demand an international humanitarian solution, not a military one. We must ask whether those minor advances are enough on balance to justify the costs and risks of becoming in effect a permanent presence in “the graveyard of empires.”

Peace will call for compromises. President Karzai is already trying to bargain with non-Al Qaeda factions in the Taliban and may cede to them dominance in certain areas. To assert his own authority, he has ordered the phasing out of all private security companies, foreign and domestic, within four months. The September elections are an opportunity to start talking about how power will be distributed in the new Afghanistan as we withdraw.

The Obama administration is already engaged in talks with Afghanistan’s neighbors. The challenge is to convince key countries—particularly India, which has already invested in Afghanistan; Pakistan, which is tempted to prefer a weak neighbor; and Iran, which may rather keep America bogged down in an endless expedition—that a neutral and stable Afghanistan is better for all. This is difficult, but we must try. Obama should stress that our 2011 departure is a commitment, not a mere gesture. Our soldiers have done their heroic best. We have wounds to heal. We will honor our troops by bringing them home.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mike Evans
13 years 7 months ago
There is no easy exit strategy. We have kicked over a hornets' nest and all the king's horses and king's men cannot put this place back together again. The economy of the country is a shambles; people are starving and extremely deprived. Education is almost non-existent and limited to few in the early grades. Roadways are a mess and there is no significant public infrastructure. The Aghans are literally still in a stone age lifestyle, depending on tribal connections for protection and survival. We could certainly quit our belicose strategy and withdraw to the military sidelines. We could also offer significant foreign aid to help the Afghans rebuild and improve their country for themselves, according to their own plans and aspirations. We should not rearm surrogate war lords and private armies. We should emphasize health care, education, transportation and basic utilities such as clean water and proper sewage disposal. If we can refocus our efforts, we need not become 'losers.'
Greta Green
13 years 7 months ago
Maybe we can send over Neville Chamberlain to negotiate peace in our time as with Hitler.  The radicals will take over again if we depart and training camps will open back up.  We cannot pretend that by leaving the area we will be safe from radical attack.  In fact, there will be celebration in the radical muslim world as if they have defeated the USA and as Osama predicted, we are soft and will not stay in the fight. 
The war is not one we started, but what part of 50 years of radical attacks by Islam do you not understand.  They are not going to go away.  They are not going to stop.  Soon the radical will have greater access to WMD from iran. 
Tom Maher
13 years 7 months ago

The picture on the cover of Times magazine of July 29, 2010 of a young women with her nose cut off is indeed the work of the Taliban.  The story inside Times magazine indicates the women's ears were also cut off.

The Times picture of this barbaric mutilations of a young women can not be so easily dismissed.  It is as the Time magazine editor Richard Stengel says a window to wahat is going on in the world.  Time magazine stands by the story.  It is an authentic story of the rountine, barbaric treatment of women by the Taliban.

The mutilated women's whad recently married into a Taliban family who treated her like a slave.  She ran away from the abuse.  For running away, the local Taliban leader formally charged and ordered her punishment be carried out by her family.  An in-law held the women down and the husband cut off her nose and ears.   The husband acts of mutilation were initiated. encouraged and protected by the Taliban.

Other parts of Afghanistan not under Talban control do not mutilate and subjugate women.  Areas free of the Taliban control, women have had hugh social and political gains in the last nine years.  It is the routine religious savagery of the Taliban that makes this kind documented authentic atrocity possible for this women and all women under the severe theocratic control of the Taliban.

C Walter Mattingly
13 years 7 months ago
Our secretary of state as well as our president disagree with the suggestion here that leaving the theater of Afghanistan (and Pakistan as well) will have no impact, that it is "delusional" to think that our presence there does not discourage AlQaeda and the Taliban from recreating what they once had as an operational base.
Coherent arguments can be made for leaving Afghanistan and also for remaining in Afghanistan. The one position that makes no sense to me is to remain, taking casualties and expending resources, while we tell our enemies the date we will throw in the towel, which of course was the "compromise" that our president resorted to.
I also perceive a sort of elitist, anti-military distain in alluding to our military's "can do" attitude as a problem in the stew America attempts to cook up here. What would America prefer, a military with a "can't do" attitude?
What I suspect General Petraeus, probably the most competent leader in the Obama administration, is concerned about is taking casualties for the next year while the leadership is planning to bail in any case. That would, I think, present an ethical dilemna for a military leader: a waste of lives for no purpose.
There is a question I have for the editors, who here state that Obama should hold Petraeus to his word that if there is no progress in Afghanistan between now and the appointed time, then Petraeus would not seek an extension of the conflict. What is America's position if the president and the general see significant progress toward a successful resolution? Would America then support the extension of the effort in Afghanistan? If not, America should not be calling for a withdrawal at a future date. A coherent moral position would demand that they call for a withdrawal immediately and save needless waste of lives and resources.
Julett Broadnax
13 years 7 months ago

From what I read in the editorial, it sounds as though the coming year is to be a time of preparing the surrounding countries, through deplomatic means, to stand by Afghanistan's government's determination to become a neutral and stable country.  With an election this fall, our continued military presence will help in the time of transition that will occur.  Having a plan to leave by a certain date is not admitting defeat - no matter what picture other's may try to paint.  Our military have done their best to try to stabilize this country.  Now let them come home to be honored for their commitment to our country's involvement in Afghanistan.  Developing the countries resources, if used wisely, could certainly benefit the citizens of that country - giving them employment and funds to rebuild their nation.  We cannot remake them into a mini-America.  Perhaps they could put on the election agenda the question - how many Afghanistan people want the US military to remain in their country?  Wonder what the response would be?


Robert Asselin
13 years 7 months ago
Thank you, America, for beginning to suggest a wider context re what to do next. The President said the issue was one of being clear about our mission, but then he waffled, as reader 4 said, and kicked the can down the road with the compromise of naming a date and increasing our commitment. With no clear idea of our mission, the bureaucracy's natural inclination to think in terms of nation-building kicked in again. 

Mission: As America has said, waging war can never be justified on humanitarian terms alone. (Cynical attempts to justify war on such grounds anger me. Remember going into Kuwait to save the populace from Sadam's tyranny?)  Although we are undoubtedly doing some good thing supporting Afghan leaders working to improve humanitarian conditions, humanitarianism is not our first mission in Afghanistan.  Self defense is, and we also have a moral responsibility for having intervened in Afghanistan that we cannot ignore by cutting and running. Doing so would not serve our self defense interests and be morally wrong. 

The question is how best to pursue the self-defense mission, one that the President needs to explain to us all.  Nation-building is not working.  I like what reader 1 says about supporting local warlords.  They need to understand that we expect them to keep the Taliban under control or there will be bad consequences for their communities in terms of air-stikes and covert action by us, AND that cooperation with us will help them develop their communities.  We know from Colombia and other places that local development is impossible without local security. So if warlords can provide it with our arms (remember our arming the Taliban against the Russians?), we should be ready to provide very significant local development assistance.  The national government, such as it is, needs to be involved, but not in charge of our relatioinship with local leaders. If the local leaders fail to prevent Taliban enclaves that harbor terrorists who are dangerous to us, we have to be prepared to follow through on our threats to retaliate, militarily and covertly.

Since the early 60s, we successfully implemented a cold war policy like this against the USSR and its allies.  Yes, the USSR was a not a failed state, but we can do the same and save lots of lives, our soldiers' and innocent civilians, compared with what we are doing now.
Charles Erlinger
13 years 7 months ago

Your paragraph starting with "We should focus on negotiating a way out" describes rather incompletely what I assume is  your "desired end-state," that is, the objective.  Can you elaborate on whether  your desired end-state is a united nation-state of Afghanistan extending to its presently described borders, governed centrally from some national capital, such as Kabul, and able to defend itself from encroachment or hegemonic domination by neighboring nation-states, able to formulate and pursue its own foreign and domestic policy, including economic and social policy?  Having elaborated on that question, could you elaborate on the strategy that you recommend for achieving that end-state, with the understanding that "negotiate" is a rather inadequate description of a strategy?

john fitzmorris
13 years 7 months ago
I could not agree more with your estimate of the situation - an old military term, if I remember rightly.We seem to be constantly tumbling into these peripheral wars or conflicts where we inveriably  wind up trying to "fix" the benighted inhabitants by trying to make them into Americans and their leaders into Thomas Jefferson. Cultures cannot be changed overnight or by fiat even if it is the U.S. of A and its can-do spirit. Once we exorcise that "demonic"spirit from  our mind-set the U.S. of A and the world will be much better. 
Camille Devaney
13 years 7 months ago
I would fully agree.  We have experienced enough killing on both sides.  American democracy is great and I would not want to live permanently anywhere else.  I say this after many years, enjoyable completely, living and working in Europe and NW Africa. However we can not nor should we think that we can change and control the whole world.
John Siegmund
13 years 7 months ago
We cannot sustain an empire! So we wrap it up or get out because we can no longer afford a bloated defense establishment all over the planet.  We should bring all of our troops home, remain neutral and trade with all.  George Washington warned us to beware of entangling foreign alliances and we should listen to that advice. Let the chips fall where they may we are not the new Roman Empire.
Tom Maher
13 years 7 months ago
Oh no. George Wahington Farwell Address of 1793 is being used again to justify isolationism.  Let us hide in Fortress America and let the Atlantic and Pacific oceans protect us.  

Nobody heard of something a little fresher from say 1936, 1938, 1940 or 1941 when the World War II engulfed the world while the United States stood by hoping we would not get involved?  Diidn't work.   

Please quoting George Wahington from more tahn two centuries ago before the War of 1812 and even before the Napoleaonic Wars is very dated and not useful at all.

Some people have even used this quote to advocate abolishing NATO during the high of the cold war.  NATO a military allieance help keeo the peace,  Isolation of 1940 gave us only the largest war in history.  

The latest from america

U.S. Catholics are more polarized than ever in how they view Pope Francis, even though majorities on both ends of the political spectrum have a positive view of the pope, according to a new survey.
In this special round table episode of “Inside the Vatican,” America Editor-in-Chief Father Sam Sawyer and the Executive Director of Outreach, America’s LGBT Catholic resource, Michael O’Loughlin, join host Colleen Dulle for a discussion on the document “Dignitas Infinita” and the pastoral
Inside the VaticanApril 12, 2024
Miles Teller stars in a scene from the movie "Whiplash." (CNS photo/courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)
Played by Miles Teller, Andrew falls prey to an obsession so powerful that it robs us of the clarity or freedom to make good choices.
John DoughertyApril 12, 2024
In one way or another, these collections bear the traces of the divine, of the needful Christ.
Delaney CoyneApril 12, 2024