Monday, May 2, 2011

Is Now the Time to Leave Afghanistan?

Osama bin Laden is dead. Is now the right time to leave Afghanistan?

I ask because I think the decision to keep troops in Afghanistan has been agonizing for many Canadians and Americans. I have argued with people in both of my homes about whether our troops should still be there, almost ten years after invading.

The reasons to leave are powerful. The human cost of the mission is terribly high, both in terms of Western troops/aid workers and Afghan victims of the war. The financial and political costs are high, too. And it's debatable how much good we're doing in terms of 'nation building' or even preventing future terrorist attacks.

But I have usually argued that, on balance, there were still sufficiently good reasons to stay. Simply put, the job wasn't finished: Osama bin Laden was still at large, the Taliban were still awful, and running away would have given the jihadis greater scope to commit evil.

Does bin Laden's death change that equation? I'm not sure, but it's certainly possible. Until now, one of the real costs of leaving was the image of NATO cutting and running when the going got tough. With Osama dead, there is now a window of time open in which NATO could leave Afghanistan with its head held high. It would still be a mistake to say 'mission accomplished', given all the wreckage of Afghanistan and the turmoil that is likely to accompany NATO's departure, but Osama's death is a tangible victory to show for NATO's efforts.

Of course, Osama bin Laden's death is probably more symbolic than a real blow to al Qaeda's operations. I don't want to equate Osama's death with victory over terrorism. Still, it's a major milestone.

And I emphasize that it is really a window of time. If NATO continues major combat operations in Afghanistan for a significant period of time even after Osama is dead, the window will close.

Now is the time to think hard about the rationale for the operation. I'd love to hear what others think. Is now the time to leave Afghanistan?

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