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SANDERS: The cost of a hasty retreat from Afghanistan

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Two recent, deeply intertwined acts of violence demonstrate the terrible burden hanging on the outcome of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

An American soldier's alleged rampage taking the lives of 17 Afghan villagers paralleled the attack of a Franco-Mahgrebi youth resulting in the deaths of seven French Muslim veterans and Jewish civilians. Not for a moment should any attempt be made to equate the two events or, indeed, to make any comparative moral judgments. One episode was apparently a breakdown into temporary insanity. The other was, however equally deranged, a premeditated political assassination.

But they are linked.

The charges against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, on his fourth tour in a Middle East war zone, seem a likely symptom of the increasingly heavy burden that he and his fellow American warriors have had to shoulder. But if a murderous outburst could be rationalized as inevitable in a guerrilla war with no front lines, it also highlighted the American public's growing fatigue with a decade of involvement in "faraway countries about which we know little." Only the valor and sacrifice of a small portion of the U.S. population willing to commit to professional military service have made this effort possible - a far cry from the skewed draft Army involved in the Vietnam retreat.

Mohammed Merah, whom, ironically, one journalist interlocutor before the killings characterized as speaking impeccable French, is one of thousands of young Muslims, often second- and third-generation natives reared in the West who, after becoming radicalized for whatever social reasons, go to the Middle East for guerilla training to fight for Islamist causes. Some return and melt back into the population. But others, unpredictably, silently dedicate themselves to "lone wolf" terrorism, as Merah apparently did. Three decades of war in Afghanistan already have provided fertile ground for their apprenticeships. But Pakistan's growing Islamist radicalism suggests possibilities for a much larger generation of terrorists among that country's vast diaspora in the West.

U.S. and NATO intervention in the region after 9/11, however it might now appear, was logical in eliminating an important terrorist safe haven from which strikes could have originated. With 20/20 hindsight, attempting to modernize an isolated, pre-industrial Afghan society might be viewed as a bridge too far, rather than choosing a simpler strategy of destroying the terrorists' nest, ousting the regime that gave them sanctuary and withdrawing abruptly. That larger Afghanistan effort, coupled with the revival of an abandoned aid commitment for Pakistan, has turned out to be far more costly in blood and treasure than anticipated by most Americans unacquainted with the region.

Now mesmerized by its own continued economic problems and the four-year cycle to choose its leadership, the U.S. flirts with a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan and, inevitably as a result, from Pakistan. The arbitrary troop withdrawal plan scheduled by the Obama administration has emboldened old enemies. Without a definitive U.S. victory, Taliban remnants, shading over into the kinds of terrorists who carried out 9/11, are brazenly re-emerging not only there, but also throughout the Muslim world.

That a U.S. withdrawal would return the region to the status quo ante seems unlikely. Far too much has happened. But continued targeting by U.S. drones (with Pakistan's tacit intelligence collaboration) of "foreigners" in the tribal regions along the fictitious Afghanistan-Pakistan border is evidence enough to be concerned about the effects of a rapid U.S. retreat.

But it may well be that the U.S. public will make that choice for all the obvious reasons.

As always, there is no predicting unanticipated consequences. But a likely possibility is chaos in Afghanistan and further erosion of a Pakistani regime under its incompetent civilian leadership and an increasingly discredited military, a military on which the regime has so heavily depended since independence. A Pakistani implosion so closely linked to Afghanistan events would mean that country of 200 million people would become an even more fertile breeding ground for terrorists. Furthermore, its neighbor India, with an even larger domestic Muslim population, would not be able to stabilize its western border. In fact, Pakistani ethnic and regional disintegration would be a threat to Indian unity.

That is only part of the still incalculable price for precipitous U.S. withdrawal, countering all those very good arguments for a hasty retreat that are tempting the American public and those running for high office.

Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at solsanders@cox.net and blogs at www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.

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