- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2012

American troops will soon leave Afghanistan. What could become a key policy question for the 2012 election is, what will happen after they depart?

A series of new polls show that the public wants to wash its hands of Afghanistan. The trend was well-established even before recent anti-American riots and the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians, allegedly at the hands of Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. When Mr. Obama took office, a majority still believed that the war was worth fighting, but his lackluster performance in prosecuting the “war of necessity” has convinced them otherwise. An ABC News/Washington Post poll from the first week in March shows just 35 percent consider the war worth fighting, and 60 percent do not. A March Pew Research Center poll found similar results, with 35 percent saying the coalition should remain in force until the country is stabilized and 57 percent wanting forces pulled out now. A USA Today/Gallup survey concluded 24 percent wanted forces out by the 2014 deadline, and 50 percent wanted to speed up that timetable.

This is not deep buyer’s remorse. Majorities still approve of President George W. Bush’s decision to send troops in 2001, even as they conclude that continuing the troop presence is not worth it. Americans do not want to fight battles they can’t win or are not being allowed to win. So-called long wars have never been part of the American way of war. The style we prefer is to go in with overwhelming force, fix the problem and leave. The intellectual case for the long war requires the American public to accept a level of ambiguity and sustained sacrifice that it is not willing to do.

Mr. Obama’s challenge in the election year is to make the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan not look like a defeat. His Republican challenger, meanwhile, has to have something more positive and popular to say than “Stay the course.”

Afghans are preparing for civil war, similar to the one that broke out after the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989. The United States should pledge to support the elected Afghan central government and sympathetic provincial leaders with air power, intelligence support and other critical capabilities to prevent a Taliban takeover. The strategy would look much like the transformational, small-footprint approach Mr. Bush employed to destabilize and ultimately overthrow the Taliban regime in the fall of 2001. It may not prevent extremists from making local gains in the countryside - which they seem to be doing anyway - but it would stop them from taking control of the entire country and again making it into a headquarters for global terrorism.

The facts on the ground in Afghanistan are rapidly moving beyond the parameters of the American political debate. Politicians need to embrace the reality of the coming withdrawal and explore viable policies for the strategic environment to come. It is an issue Mr. Obama has been happy to let alone and one that most Republicans have been unwilling to discuss.

The Washington Times