After 13 years of war, more than 2,300 dead U.S. troops and the replacement of the Taliban regime with an elected government, the United States this past weekend declared a formal end to its combat mission in Afghanistan. That's an important symbolic marker, but no one should interpret the declaration as the end of anything. Some 10,800 U.S. troops remain behind to train and support the still-young Afghan military. Surviving Taliban forces — which operate with relative impunity from the lawless border region of Pakistan — have been mounting fresh attacks, making it clear that the fighting will continue. The best that can be hoped for is that the Afghans take over the job of defending themselves and their government, allowing the U.S. presence to diminish.
Unfortunately, we saw in Iraq what can happen when a new government — and its new military — isn't quite ready to stand on its own legs. Pro-Shiite policies by then-Prime Minister Nouri Maliki exacerbated sectarian tensions with the nation's Sunni population, fanning mistrust and weakening the central government's authority. The Iraqi military then collapsed — in some cases, turned tail — as the Islamic State insurgency expanded from the Syrian civil war into Sunni-heavy northwestern Iraq, where the extremists found some support among people who saw the barbaric invaders as preferable to the Iraqi government. Maliki was replaced as prime minister by Haider Abadi, who has sought to be more inclusive, but the damage is done. President Obama, while pledging not to send ground troops back to Iraq, has ordered U.S. air missions to try to rout the extremists.
Lesson learned, we hope. The United States is right to take precautions, including leaving behind a small force, to avoid a similar failure in Afghanistan, where, if anything, the history and regional divisions pose an even bigger challenge than in Iraq. But there are caveats. Any time military force is deployed, there is the danger of mission creep, and that is certainly to be guarded against in Afghanistan. The U.S. led the coalition invasion in October 2001 to root out Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network of terrorists, and to topple the Taliban regime that had given them cover. Bin Laden is dead, and although Al Qaeda and the Taliban are gone from positions of power, they are not vanquished. Should the Afghans suffer defeats at their hands, the temptation to escalate the U.S. role will be powerful, but should be tempered by the recognition that the primary goals in the conflict have been met.
Still, the United States has a responsibility to continue helping Afghanistan move to a more independent and self-sustaining government. That's not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is in the U.S. national interest. As the world was reminded in 2001, instability creates haven for terrorists. A stable Afghanistan makes for a safer world.
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