In Afghanistan, a Troop Withdrawal Deadline Is Good Policy

Under the umbrella of a Western occupation, you can blame all problems on the occupiers and keep your own folks in a frenzy.

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Conservative op-ed columnists have taken the firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as an opportunity to repeat, once again, their demand that the United States make an open-ended commitment to the use of American ground troops in Afghanistan.

[Check out editorial cartoons about the Afghan War.]

If the Afghans know we are leaving, say the critics, our foes will simply wait us out. The same argument was made in Iraq, when Democrats in Congress tried to put a deadline on the U.S. involvement there.

I don't buy it. Take it from a newspaperman. The great thing about deadlines is--they compel action.

The future of Iraq, and Afghanistan, lies in a political solution. We can stay forever, and let them kill us, or we can leave, and let them kill each other. But we cannot make rival tribes and sects and gangs stop killing until they decide to do so. What we are really seeking is the best way to improve our leverage.

[See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]

Now, put yourself in the sandals of an Iraqi sheik, or an Afghan warlord, or President Hamid Karzai. Under the umbrella of a Western occupation, you can blame all problems on the occupiers, keep your own folks in a frenzy, settle old blood-scores and grudges, and make millions of dollars in corrupt dealings. If the occupiers vow to stay forever, you have no incentive to settle things. War is great business.

But what if you know the Western troops are leaving? And that, in not too many months, you'll be staring at the gun barrels of the well-armed troops of your foes. This scenario gives you two immediate needs: to whip your own act into shape, and to make those tough political deals, even with age-old enemies, that will give you a chance to survive.

It may be happening in Afghanistan, as there now are reports that the Afghan and Pakistani governments, and various Taliban and tribal warlords, seem to be jockeying for position, as they hear the clock ticking. Call it a power struggle, or call it a political solution, but it is how this war will end.

Unless, that is, we cling to the myth of an eternal commitment, and it ends like Saigon, 1975.

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on Afghanistan.
  • Follow the money in Congress.
  • See 10 things you didn't know about Stanley McChrystal.