Afghan Endgame

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Omar Sobhani / Reuters

U.S. troops attend a change of command ceremony in Kabul on Feb. 10, 2013.

No longer any point in pretending. The U.S. is in such a rush to pull out of Afghanistan, it is risking the sacrifice of 2,086 U.S. troops and more than a half-trillion dollars to put the “graveyard of empires” in its rear-view mirror.

President Obama declared in his State of the Union address Tuesday night that 34,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan will come home within a year. That will slash the total U.S. troop presence there from the current 66,000 to 32,000.

“This drawdown will continue, and by the end of next year our war in Afghanistan will be over,” Obama declared, as Vice President Joe Biden rose and applauded behind him, while House Speaker John Boehner remained resolutely seated. “It’s true different al-Qaida affiliates and extremist groups have emerged — from the Arabian peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations.”

Obama’s troop pullout is based on a pretty simple calculus:

1. The American public is fed up with war in general, and the Afghan war in particular.

2. The prolonged presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is unlikely to change its eventual outcome.

3. So let’s bring them home as quickly as possible to rid ourselves of what had been a logically-launched war, but became an ill-considered occupation.

Nearly everyone wearing a U.S. military uniform you speak with wishes more U.S. troops could stay in Afghanistan longer – at least through the 2014 fighting season, from next spring to next fall.

The fact that Marine General John Allen has agreed to the accelerated pullout means that general officers, like human beings in general, are malleable.

But in discussions with U.S. military officers, you get the sense that the real military calculus, unlike the political one detailed above, goes something like this:

1. We tried, and failed, to build a central government that could unite the Afghan people. It is – after more than a decade – little more than a sand castle built at low tide.

2. We don’t have the money to continue this effort. Especially when we can do it – “it” being to keep Afghanistan from becoming a launching pad for attacks against the U.S. – a lot more cheaply with special-operations forces and drones lazily orbiting overhead, firing the occasional Hellfire missile to take out suspected terrorists (cf. Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen). “Where necessary, through a range of capabilities,” Obama pledged Tuesday night, “we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.”

3. So long as safe havens persist in western Pakistan – and they do, and there is scant sign of them fading away anytime soon – our efforts are akin to sealing a leaking basement wall with Scotch tape.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued a statement following Obama’s speech. “I welcome President Obama’s announcement tonight that 34,000 American troops will be home from Afghanistan by this time next year,” he said. Panetta added that the new U.S. commander, Marine General Joseph Dunford, “will have the combat power he needs to protect our forces, to continue building up the capabilities of Afghan National Security Forces, and to achieve the goal of this campaign — to deny al Qaeda a safe haven to attack our homeland.”

Perhaps. But Secretary Panetta is yesterday.

Tomorrow consists of one Vietnam veteran running State, and a second who took a step closer to running the Pentagon on Tuesday, when the Senate Armed Services Committee approved his nomination by a 14-11 party-line vote.

“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?” Secretary of State John Kerry asked Congress in April, 1971. “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Kerry may have been a lieutenant in Vietnam, but Chuck Hagel, the nominee to run the Pentagon, was a grunt.

“This old infantry sergeant thinks about when I was in Vietnam in 1968, United States senators making decisions that affected my life and a lot of people who lost their lives, that they didn’t have — I didn’t have anything to say about,” he told a Library of Congress interviewer in 2002. “Someone needs to represent that perspective in our government as well. The people in Washington make the policy, but it’s the little guys who come back in the body bags.”

Elections, as they say, have consequences.