Credit: TMS/M. Ryder

The war in Afghanistan was a righteous attack on the people who attacked us on 9/11. But the U.S. military has stayed too long, just as it has in Iraq. It's time to bring those troops home too. Not in three years, as President Barack Obama plans, but as quickly as the logistics of withdrawal allow.

Unlike Iraq, our justification for the war in Afghanistan was clear, as were our goals. And after 10 years and a cost of $444 billion and 1,800 American lives, the United States has achieved what it set out to do. Afghanistan is no longer a base of operation for al-Qaida. The Taliban regime that provided it safe haven has been ousted. A democratic government, as frail as it may be, is in place. Osama bin Laden, like scores of al-Qaida leaders, has been killed.

It's time to declare victory and leave. There's little more the United States can accomplish by staying longer.

We can't ensure the Taliban never regains power. It's a resilient faction with significant popular support. Democracy is tricky. People elect whom they want. The United States has even signaled it's open to negotiations with the Taliban.

We can't guarantee al-Qaida, or some other terrorist group, won't set up shop there some day. Not unless we're prepared to keep a lot of boots on the ground forever, and that would invite a backlash among Afghans that could increase support for terrorists.

We can't make Afghanistan over in our own image. The odds are long it will ever become a modern, industrial democracy. Its tribal and ethnic divisions, low literacy, poverty and barren economy are formidable obstacles.

U.S. troops could train more Afghan soldiers and police if they stay until 2014. But a 350,000-man army on its border that could splinter into unpredictable militias makes Pakistan nervous. U.S. relations with that important ally have been badly frayed by the war. U.S. officials accused Pakistan of aiding anti-American insurgents in Afghanistan, and last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded it equivocally pick a side in the war with terrorists.

The U.S. presence in Afghanistan has led to significant improvements in health care and a sevenfold increase in the number of girls in school. And by staying longer we could enforce a modicum of stability leading up to the Afghan presidential election in 2014.

But let's face it, whether the United States and its NATO partners quit Afghanistan now or three years from now the country is destined for a period of chaos. There will be a power struggle we can only hope will be fought with ballots instead of bullets. And the economy is likely to collapse.

Practically every dollar of economic output there now depends on the presence of the international military and donor community. The United States has poured $18.8 billion in nonmilitary aid into the country since 2001. That flood of money distorted the economy and fueled corruption. Most went to international firms, and their wages -- up to 10 times more than otherwise available -- drew expertise out of the government.

The United States wants permanent bases in Afghanistan, so it's likely to continue providing some aid. But most of the foreign money will follow coalition forces out of the country, causing a devastating dip of up to 40 percent in economic activity, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. That will make it difficult for Afghans to earn a living, and it will probably boost opium cultivation and the heroin trade, a staple of the Afghan economy. It's not a pretty picture.

But since political and economic tumult is likely whenever NATO forces go, better to rip the Band-Aid off now, rather than spend more years, money and lives to forestall the inevitable.

 

There is little public support in the United States for nation-building in Afghanistan. And recent successes elsewhere suggest counterterrorism, a focus on targeting and killing terrorists wherever they are in the world, is more effective than occupying nations.

U.S. special forces have taken the war to al-Qaida in the rugged mountains of northwest Pakistan; near Islamabad, where Osama bin Laden was killed; and in Yemen, where drones killed al-Qaida operations director Anwar al-Awlaki. Fighting in Afghanistan to hold territory and root out insurgents is a strategy mired in the past. It's not the way to win a global war against a stateless, mobile enemy.