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Editorial: America still has only bad choices in Afghanistan

There was little doubt in the weeks following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack that an invasion of Afghanistan was the right thing to do. The Taliban regime played host to al-Qaida, the terrorist organization that carried out the attacks, and its leader, Osama bin Laden. It was also known for the torture of many in Afghanistan, its subjection of women, and its destruction of holy and historical sites.

And the war was successful at first. The U.S., along with NATO and Afghan rebel allies, ousted the Taliban in months. It would take almost another decade, but the U.S. also tracked down and killed bin Laden across the border in Pakistan.

But the U.S. and our allies have not been able to kill off the Taliban, which sought refuge in the mountains along the border and received some support from Pakistan, which was supposed to be an ally in the war on terror. And our troops have also had to battle al-Qaida fighters and those loyal to the Islamic State. So put a checkmark by goal No. 1, revenge/justice for 9/11. But the other U.S. goal – nation building a democracy – has hardly been a success.

According to Associated Press reports, ordinary Afghans have mixed feelings about the presence of U.S. and NATO troops. Many fear their departure, believing it will strengthen the Taliban, yet criticize their presence for doing little to improve security, which has deteriorated. Afghans complain bitterly about their deeply corrupt government and see the U.S. – which largely bankrolls it – as responsible.

The U.S. hasn’t had a clear exit strategy with achievable benchmarks since the war began. And so President Barack Obama began a drawdown in 2014, reducing U.S. and NATO forces from more than 100,000 to the 14,000 who remain. President Donald Trump intends to reduce that by half in the coming months. And where we are today is not where many hoped we would be back in the early days after the invasion.

Afghanistan’s security forces rely heavily on U.S. air power against both Taliban and an upstart Islamic State affiliate, and Afghan military officials note the country’s security is at its worst since 2014, when the initial drawdown took place and security was handed off to the Afghans, with the U.S. and NATO retreating into a training and advising role.

The Taliban again controls roughly half of the country and its leaders are rejoicing Trump’s announced withdrawal. A U.S. pullout gives the Taliban one more bargaining chip in peace talks – either continue to hold out and refuse to negotiate until the U.S. is gone, or make additional demands of the weakened government. Momentum seems to be on the Taliban’s side for what many thought early in the war would be unthinkable – taking back control of the country. And Afghan generals have voiced a concern the news will be demoralizing to security forces. Afghan officials compare a U.S. pullout with the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.

But what choices does the United States have?

The war in Afghanistan is already the longest war in our nation’s history, with a cost of nearly $1 trillion and 2,400 lives. And what has it accomplished? Almost 20 years in, shouldn’t the fight to keep the Taliban from retaking power ultimately rest with the people of Afghanistan?

And yet, while you can’t measure what hasn’t happened, it bears pointing out there has not been another 9/11.

So the U.S. can remain in the country as protector against the Taliban and other Islamic extremists for an indefinite amount of time and at a cost of more American lives and money. Or the U.S. can cut its losses and risk the enemy that attacked us taking power in Kabul once again.

Trump is simply continuing what his predecessor started four years ago, based on the same choices Obama had. They were bad then, and they aren’t good now. And what’s still missing almost two decades after the U.S. went in is a plan that makes either choice make sense to the Americans who have sacrificed life and treasure in Afghanistan.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.