Leaving Afghanistan

Posted June 23, 2010, at 5:45 p.m.

President Barack Obama doesn’t just need a new general in Afghanistan. He needs a new plan. With the U.S. economy teetering on the brink of another downturn and concerns about the federal deficit growing, that plan should be to end the war as soon as possible.

Of course, there will be downsides to an earlier U.S. withdrawal. But with the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan, a hopelessly corrupt government in Kabul and American military operations hamstrung for fear of killing civilians — and pressing needs at home — the president can no longer justify an expensive commitment with marginal results.

Conservative columnist George Will said much the same on these pages nearly 10 months ago as the White House was considering sending more troops (which it is doing). “Counterinsurgency theory concerning the time and the ratio of forces required to protect the population indicates that, nationwide, Afghanistan would need hundreds of thousands of coalition troops, perhaps for a decade or more. That is inconceivable,” he wrote in September 2009.

Instead of large numbers of troops, Mr. Will said “America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent special forces units.”

U.S. involvement in Afghanistan grabbed headlines again this week because of comments the top commander there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, made to a reporter working for Rolling Stone magazine. Gen. McChrystal and unnamed members of his staff denigrated several members of the Obama administration in the magazine article. The general, President Obama’s hand-picked choice to lead U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was summoned to Washington for a meeting with the president Wednesday, where he was removed from command.

The president gave that responsibility to Gen. David Petraeus, who is credited with reversing American fate in Iraq.

No matter who is in charge, the president needs to present a new plan for the future of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Curtailing that involvement quickly — not in 2011 as is the plan — makes sense.

The U.S. effort in Afghanistan this year is expected to cost more than $100 billion. In Washington, the Senate is debating a jobs bill, which economists say is needed to ensure the country does not slip back into recession. Opposition to the bill, which includes an extension of unemployment benefits and enhanced Medicaid payments to the states, hinges on its costs, which fluctuate between $110 billion and $140 billion depending on what is included. With a large and growing deficit, the extra spending can’t be justified, opponents argue.

It would be simplistic to think that money now spent in Afghanistan could be devoted to this bill. But, if the U.S. pares its presence in Afghanistan, it will begin to spend less there, and less will be added to the deficit. Or, lawmakers could choose to use that money to address pressing problems here. Either way it would take a strain off the U.S. budget.

As important, it would take strain off our troops. Deaths in Afghanistan are sadly on the rise, and frequent deployments are blamed for an unconscionably high number of suicides (the subject of a Senate hearing Tuesday).

The president, in an awkward way, has a chance to rethink how and when the U.S. leaves Afghanistan. He should seize it.

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