Liberally Speaking (12/10/09)

Finishing the job in Afghanistan

Dec. 10, 2009

By Steve Mount

After the United States joined World War II, the Allies had victory over the Axis war machine in less than four years. In doing so, the United States lost more than 400,000 soldiers. Few, then or now, doubted that the war was necessary.

Our war in Afghanistan, by contrast, is very different. The first boots hit the ground in 2001, making this war eight years old, with the end only just a nebulous plan.

This war is not a war against a nation or alliance of nations. Our enemy has no capital to capture, no president to arrest. We all want victory, but few can express exactly what victory in the larger war means.

One reason that we are still in Afghanistan now, and will be for years to come, is that we were distracted from this fight by the war in Iraq. While our efforts in Iraq wane, and with the touch of a new commander in chief, we have been reminded of our unfinished business in Afghanistan.

The other reason I’ve already alluded to — our enemy is not a people, a country or even a government. It is a loose alliance of organizations, with decentralized command, constantly moving troops and with often-reluctant support from the people. Worse, they know no borders, and all that does is complicate matters even further.

The president’s new plan for Afghanistan is relatively simple: To provide 30,000 additional troops to the war and to be in a position to begin pulling out again in 18 months.

To some, those on the left especially, any extension of the war is a broken promise. By the time the expansion is complete, the United States will have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. This is a far cry from Obama’s campaign promise to end the wars and bring all the troops home.

Obama, however, has called the Afghanistan conflict the “right war,” contrasting it with the Iraq conflict, the “wrong war.” It is not surprising, then, that Obama would want to finish what the United States started in Afghanistan. We have fulfilled only part of what we set out to do. We have removed the Taliban from power, and a new government has been put into place.

These successes are not without issue.

The Taliban is no longer in power, but it is still a threat. Afghanistan security forces must be in a position to oppose and suppress uprisings after we leave, and we must get Pakistan to join the effort in earnest.

The Afghani government is seriously flawed, with corruption and graft the seeming norm, and the results of the last election are a nagging question. In an area with a history like Afghanistan, however, it is a wonder they are as far along as they are.

On the right, the president’s plan to begin pullouts in 18 months is seen as a sign of weakness, a signal to the enemy that all they need to do is wait us out and they can have free reign again. These criticisms ignore too much, though. The president never said we would pull out in 18 months, only that pullouts could begin then. This past weekend, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was clear that if the situation does not warrant a withdrawal, one will not happen.

As if to make the point even clearer, United States forces began offensives into Taliban-held towns in Afghanistan almost as soon as the president’s announcement was made.

I don’t want us to be in Afghanistan a moment longer than we have to be, and as 1,500 Vermont Guard forces prepare to deploy there, I don’t want any more of our soldiers to have to die over there. But at the same time, we made a commitment to bring peace and stability to the region. We took our eyes off that ball for a long time, and it is time we refocus there, do what we said we would do and then get out.

The Afghan War may never have the equivalent of a VJ Day, with soldiers and civilians celebrating victory in Times Square. I would give up a thousand VJ Day celebrations to know that the people of Afghanistan have peace, stability, jobs and prosperity, and no need for the Taliban. When that happens, when hope returns to the Afghan people, then we will have won, and we can bring all our troops home with the knowledge that we kept our promises.


Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at or read his blog at