I supported—and, even in hindsight, continue to support—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both cases I believed that we were appropriately justified in military action. Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan were evil, genocidal leaders and removing them from power was a moral, righteous act. The mistakes that were made by President George W. Bush (R) and his administration in the execution of these wars didn’t change these underlying facts.
Near the end of his presidency, Bush started to right some of his strategic errors. The ‘troop surge’ in Iraq, for example, was a resounding success. President Barack Obama (D) has announced a somewhat similar ‘surge’ strategy to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, which has been praised by some conservatives, but at the same time he has been criticized for announcing that we will begin withdrawing troops in 2011.
Critics claim that it is great folly to announce a withdrawal date. I understand this argument and, for a long time, subscribed to it myself. If we say we’re leaving Afghanistan in 2011, then the Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents know exactly how long they need to hold out before they can reassert control of the country. Fair enough. But I no longer subscribe to this argument because I can no longer subscribe to indefinite commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It goes without saying that we can’t stay in these countries forever—at least not as an active combat force. Eventually the people and governments of Iraq and Afghanistan must stand on their own. In Afghanistan, it’s been eight years. In Iraq, it’s been six. Maybe it’s about time they started taking care of themselves. We must do everything that we can to make sure these countries have every opportunity for success after we are gone, but if they fail to take the opportunities we have given them we are not responsible for that.
Setting withdrawal dates in these countries will give the bad guys a ‘hold out’ date, but it will force their governments and peoples to overcome their sectarian squabbles and begin behaving like civilized adults before that date too. If they don’t, well, the mess they end up with will be one of their own making, not ours.
My hope, of course, is that both Iraq and Afghanistan become successful, stable, productive members of the community of nations. But whether or not that happens is more in their hands than ours. It’s time that we begin to disengage—carefully and responsibly—and it is past time for the peoples of these two nations to take control of their own destinies. They may choose a productive future, or a return to the despotism of the past. We can rest easy knowing that we gave two peoples an opportunity to emerge from tyranny, and that if they fail to seize the chance they have nobody to blame but themselves.
We conservatives were right about both of these wars, but we can’t cling to this notion that we can or should stay in these countries indefinitely. There is nothing wrong with discussing and pursuing a responsible exit strategy.