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Politics

Obama Needs to Stay the Course in Afghanistan

A faster pullout would be an insult to the U.S. troops who died fighting terrorism.

Afghanistan is looking a lot less like the hunt for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda and a lot more like an untenable occupation, but playing politics with a war can be a dangerous game, especially when the mission has yet to be accomplished.

A U.S. soldier's alleged massacre of Afghan civilians soon after the explosive aftermath of the accidental burning of the Quran by Americans in Kabul has rekindled public desire to see an end to a war that is becoming mired in mistakes and missteps. The remaining GOP presidential candidates, at the very least, want to take another look at plans to withdraw all U.S. troops by 2014, and perhaps speed it up a bit.

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Politically, it would be pretty easy to get out now. Trust between U.S. forces and their Afghan counterparts has been compromised, and the government of Hamid Karzai has ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces from villages back to their large bases. With an expanding majority of Americans ready for the war to be over, the door is open to a more immediate -- and popular -- retreat.

But even in an election year, President Obama has to tune out the noise and make sure the strategic objectives for Afghanistan are carried out before American forces pull out. It's the difference between being commander in chief and a politician up for reelection: The oath of office trumps politics. Obama has no choice but to ensure the goal remains to hunt down and eliminate battlefield leaders of al Qaeda and make it nearly impossible for them to run terrorist operations out of Afghanistan.

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Coalition forces in Afghanistan will be on high alert for the foreseeable future, but will remain there, even as surge forces steadily leave the country during the next two years. Amid the outcry in America and backlash in Afghanistan, there may indeed be some change in the order or speed of the withdrawal of some battalions.

Congress will hold hearings and invite expert testimony from those who argue that the war should end now. But don’t expect much to come of the theatrics, other than a few classified briefings to placate hawks and doves alike.

The reality is that U.S. special forces will be in Afghanistan well beyond the formal 2014 troop withdrawal deadline. The elite U.S. forces will work hand in hand with their Afghani counterparts, many of whom they have trained and already team up with on clandestine operations. The U.S. forces will likely be under the CIA’s direction after 2014, when all other U.S. troops have been withdrawn. They will also continue to operate in Pakistan, as long as al Qaeda or other terrorists are allowed safe harbor there.

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At the same time, Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and top U.S. and European diplomats on the ground must seek to rebuild the relationship with Karzai and the Taliban, in order to lay down the ground rules for what Afghanistan should look like after coalition troops withdraw. It will take time. Even talking about the prospect of holding talks is off the table right now.

Even though Western leaders have no appetite for his two-timing, amateurish leadership, Karzai is all the world has to work with in terms of a pro-democracy leader in Afghanistan. Trust building with the Taliban will be a tricky task, but an exit without a deal agreeable to all parties would threaten the progress made in the country since September 11, 2001. That would be an insult to the more than 1,900 Americans killed and another 19,400 wounded in the line of duty in Afghanistan.

Obama has no choice but to finish the job, no matter what it takes. And no matter the political stakes.

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