June 16, 2011

IT'S TIME TO SHIFT STRATEGY IN AFGHANISTAN


By:  Senator Ben Cardin

Source: The Hill's Congress Blog

This week, I joined with 26 of my Senate colleagues in urging President Obama to shift our policy in Afghanistan and to begin an “accelerated” transition to Afghan security forces. While the President has said he would begin to reduce some U.S. troops in July, I believe he should use the July date as an opportunity to begin a “sizable and sustained” drawdown of troops that will lead toward the removal of all regular combat troops from the country.

Our objectives in Afghanistan have largely been met. We have removed the Taliban government that sheltered al-Qaida, we have tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden, we have disrupted the terrorist networks allied with al-Qaida, and we have hunted down those who planned the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. The costs of prolonging the war far outweigh the benefits. It’s time to shift course in Afghanistan and speed up the withdrawal process and save American lives.

In our letter to the president, my Senate colleagues and I urged him “to follow through on the pledge he made to the American people to begin redeployment of U.S. forces from Afghanistan this summer, and to do so in a manner that is sizable and sustained, and includes combat troops as well as logistical and support forces.”

In 2001 the United States rightfully -and successfully- intervened in Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaida's safe haven and pursue those who planned the September 11 attacks on our nation. CIA Director Leon Panetta believes we have accomplished our goal when he recently said: “I think at most, we're looking at maybe 50 to 100, maybe less” al-Qaida members remaining in Afghanistan.

Our Afghan policy has succeeded. Over the past few years, U.S. forces have killed or captured dozens of al-Qaida leaders. On May 1, American Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden, a major blow that further weakens the terrorist organization.

Given our successes, this is the right time to initiate a sizable and sustained reduction in forces, with the goal of steadily redeploying all regular combat troops.

Some have argued that rather than reduce our forces, we should maintain a significant number of troops to support a lengthy counter-insurgency and nation building effort. I do not agree. We will never be able to secure and police every town and village in Afghanistan. Nor will we be able to build Afghanistan from the ground up into a Western-style democracy.

In fact, endemic corruption in Afghanistan has diverted resources intended to build roads, schools and clinics, and some of these funds have ended up in the hands of the insurgents. While it may be laudable to attempt to build new civic institutions in Afghanistan, it does not justify the loss of American lives or the investment of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars.

With our overall objectives met, now is the time to accelerate the transfer of responsibility for Afghanistan's development to the Afghan people and their government. We should maintain our capacity to eliminate any new terrorist threats, continue to train the Afghan National Security Forces, and maintain our diplomatic and humanitarian efforts, but these objectives do not require the presence of more than 100,000 American troops.

Sen. Cardin is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and co-chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission.