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The Road Home from Kabul

Drawing down troops from Afghanistan is the right move. Now it's time to focus on the real threat in the neighborhood: the one coming from Pakistan.


This week, President Barack Obama fulfilled a promise he made to the American people in 2009 to begin responsibly ending the war in Afghanistan. His decision to withdraw 33,000 troops from the country over the next year came from a position of strength, thanks in large part to our men and women in uniform and their civilian counterparts who helped break the Taliban’s momentum.

We brought Osama bin Laden to justice and defeated al Qaeda in Afghanistan. It is now time to reduce the U.S. footprint and for Afghans to take charge of their country and its future. It is time to focus on the real threats in the region: those that emanate from Pakistan.

Much work remains to be done, and the withdrawal should be seen as the beginning of a new path toward success. The steps that the United States, the Afghans, and the international community need to take in the coming months are clear and achievable.

First, we must recognize that we will still be fighting two separate but intertwined wars. The first is against Mullah Omar’s Taliban in southern Afghanistan, the group that provided sanctuary to al Qaeda. We must make sure they never do that again. The president’s surge gave our military the forces it needed to launch robust operations against the Afghan Taliban, weaken its base, and force its leaders to consider negotiations as a way to survive. Our reconciliation efforts are mostly aimed at this group, which may be driven by a radical interpretation of Islam but whose interests are confined to Afghanistan.

The other war is against those who are likely irreconcilable and dedicated to attacking us, chiefly the Haqqani network and its allies in eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan. As our troops shift from the south to the east, their mission should shift accordingly from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism. It’s the job of the Afghan security forces to win hearts and minds. Along the border with Pakistan, where insurgent groups pose a major threat, we should continue to train and work closely with elite Afghan units and the Pakistani military to root them out once and for all. There will be no rest for those who seek to do us harm.

Second, we must work with Pakistan to satisfy both our interests in Afghanistan and Islamabad’s. This won’t be easy. Relations between the two countries have deteriorated sharply since bin Laden was killed near Pakistan’s premier military academy. American politicians and the public have responded with incredulity to the notion that the world’s most wanted man was hiding in plain sight a couple of hours from the capital city of Islamabad, and Pakistan’s leaders were angered and embarrassed by the violation of the country’s sovereignty. The task is difficult, too, because some insurgent networks have long-standing ties to the Pakistani state, which has used them as proxies in the fight against India and permits them sanctuaries from which they attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan. At the same time, other insurgents have attacked Pakistani security forces and civilians, killing more than 35,000 people.

Despite these differences, there is common ground with Pakistan. We have shared interest in a political deal to end the conflict in Afghanistan and allow the exodus of U.S. troops. We also share an interest in reining in the extremists who are attacking Pakistan and avoiding another Mumbai-style attack that could destabilize Pakistan-India relations. We need to build on these common interests.

Third, we must push for a political settlement in Afghanistan because ultimately there can be no military solution to the country’s problems. This is why I am heartened that the Obama administration is seriously pursuing talks with the Taliban. For reconciliation to work and be enforced, we have to listen closely to our Afghan and Pakistani partners to make sure any deal reflects their real interests and has regional support. We also want to make certain that the rights of all Afghans, including women and minorities, are protected. We can help negotiate a regional framework for Afghanistan that includes key players such as Pakistan, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, neighboring countries in Central Asia — and even Iran, with which the United States has begun preliminary talks. Tehran’s interests and influence in Afghanistan merit a place at the table at some point.

Fourth, we should make sure that the Afghan leaders and people know that the fate of their country now lies in their own hands. President Hamid Karzai has said he will honor the Afghan Constitution and step aside in 2014 as the country holds its next presidential election. This will be a key opportunity for Afghans to chart a new course.

A successful transition will be challenging. We need to rethink how best to build and sustain the Afghan army and police in order to leave behind an effective, targeted security force — not 350,000 unpaid, armed, and angry soldiers. And we have to take concrete steps to prevent the collapse of the wartime economy we have helped create, such as slowly reducing our assistance and working with other donors to set a standard wage so that we stop hiring so many of Afghanistan’s qualified civil servants to work for foreign governments and organizations.

Karzai must do his part, too. This means putting the Afghan economy on track by supporting International Monetary Fund negotiations to develop acceptable banking standards, achieving financial stability, and resolving the Kabul Bank crisis; restoring legitimacy to parliament by overturning the special elections tribunal, which is trying to throw out the results of last year’s parliamentary elections; and taking firm steps to combat the predatory corruption that alienates the Afghan people from their government.

The road home from Afghanistan will not be easy. Wars do not end overnight, and we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past by abandoning the region. Even as our troops withdraw, the Taliban and others should understand that the United States remains committed for the long run and will never again tolerate extremist sanctuaries that threaten our interests. But if we focus on what is necessary, achievable, and sustainable, our troops can come home while leaving behind a stable Afghanistan capable of charting its own future.

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