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Time to leave Afghanistan

Michael Baumgartner Special to The Spokesman-Review

The last of our troops left Iraq this week. The war that started with “shock and awe” is ending with little fanfare or celebration. After nine years and $1 trillion spent, America leaves older but little wiser.

I was in Iraq in 2007-2008, and Afghanistan in 2009, and saw many successes but far more shortcomings of American policy there.

Two million American men and women have seen deployment to the troubled cradle of civilization. Over 6,000 heroes have made the ultimate sacrifice.

This holiday season we should honor their memory and celebrate our accomplishments in Iraq with a special New Year’s resolution: to adopt a smarter foreign policy and to speedily bring our troops home from Afghanistan.

I served 13 months as a civilian economics officer at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in 2007-2008, during the “surge” of American troops.

The counterinsurgency of the Iraq surge worked, but it was made necessary by an ill-conceived strategy to invade the country, and by an occupation so haphazardly planned that to this day no one is quite sure who was responsible for the catastrophic decisions to disband the Iraqi army and “de-Baathify” the country. The surge was America at its best, rectifying America at its most foolish.

Back then, I was sure America would learn from its mistakes in Iraq. U.S. leaders would reward our troops’ bravery with common sense and reject the notion that nation-building is key to protecting us against terrorists.

I thought we would reduce reliance on private contractors and start thinking harder about why moderate Muslims in places like Dubai were enjoying the good life in nightclubs and shopping malls while U.S. forces fought in freezing mountains and scorching deserts.

Yet those hard-won lessons have not been learned.

This was made clear to me during the seven months I spent as a civilian contractor in Afghanistan. Embedded with an Afghan counternarcotics team in Helmand, it was more than obvious that the country is too poor, too remote, too uneducated and too close to Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas for our massive war effort to succeed.

Yet, since 2008, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has more than tripled, to 100,000. There is little evidence this is protecting us from al-Qaida.

Meanwhile, many politicians from both parties refuse to speak truthfully about the wars, due either to embarrassment over votes and campaign promises or fear of criticizing their own leadership.

This bipartisan embarrassment is costing lives and contributing to the economic troubles of both countries. America, itself $15 trillion in debt, will spend more than $120 billion this year fighting a war in a country with an economy less than one-sixth that size, directly fueling the massive corruption that plagues Afghanistan.

Most ominously, these wars have not made us safer against the two most dangerous challenges in the Middle East; a belligerent Iran and a disintegrating Pakistan.

The weakness is not in our troops. They continue to step forward bravely every time the nation calls. Over the past two years, I’ve regularly advised deploying U.S. military members on the economics of counterinsurgency. Many of these troops are embarking on their third or fourth yearlong deployments away from family and have spent more time in war zones than the heroes of World War II.

America needs to be smarter. Radical Islamic terrorists are a determined enemy we will face for a long time. We must confront them with a sustainable strategy that doesn’t bankrupt America, doesn’t put all of the burden on the 0.5 percent of the population serving in uniform, and that limits the risk of profit motivation from ever-expanding war contracting. This requires a new approach.

Back when I served in Baghdad, the U.S. ambassador asked me to help analyze the impacts of a U.S. exit from Iraq, and later he presented the findings to many in Congress, including the then junior senators from Illinois and New York.

If I were in front of the president and the secretary of state today, I’d tell them to look closer at the lessons of Iraq and realize it’s time to end the Afghan war, too.

Michael Baumgartner served in the Office of Joint Strategic Planning & Assessment at the U.S. Embassy, Baghdad, in 2007-2008.
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