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A Trib exclusive: America has a strategic interest in staying in Afghanistan

| Saturday, July 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Barack Obama's latest act of surrender in the war against terrorism comes in Afghanistan. Administration sources are leaking that Obama is considering withdrawing all American troops before Dec. 31, 2013, one year early, without leaving even a small, residual force in the country.

Such a decision would simply accelerate an already badly misguided policy. Faster draw-downs in Afghanistan are bad enough but even worse is Obama's inability or unwillingness to see the inevitably broader adverse consequences.

The inclination toward speedier withdrawal is attributed to Obama's deteriorating relations with Afghan President Karzai, who is apparently livid about U.S. negotiations with Taliban terrorists. Obama hopes that appeasing the Taliban through negotiations can avoid pictures of helicopters plucking Americans and friendly Afghans from Kabul's rooftops, uncomfortably reminiscent of last-minute scenes from Vietnam.

Moreover, according to polls, Americans are weary of the Afghan conflict, so Obama sees another chance to declare the war on terror over and also to score domestic political points.

Americans are “war weary” about Afghanistan for specific reasons. As president, Obama has repeatedly insisted there was no rationale for a “war on terrorism” and that he will end the wars he inherited. However, like much of his national-security approach, Afghan policy has been erratic and poorly explained. He has never made a sustained defense for fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, justifying his tactical decisions only in limited terms and ultimately with an eye on complete U.S. withdrawal, sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately, congressional Republicans and others have rarely launched a sustained critique of Obama's national-security failures or explained how the Afghan campaign fits into the larger global struggle against terrorism.

So no wonder Americans are war weary. Being very practical, citizens know they have more pressing concerns than mastering arcane foreign-policy issues. Instead, they elect presidents they expect will defend the country, explaining and justifying sacrifices we are called upon to make, including foreign wars, to protect our interests and way of life. When a president is largely silent about foreign threats, voters logically assume (if incorrectly, in Obama's case) that the risks are minimal and need not concern them. And when the loyal opposition doesn't oppose, why shouldn't Americans conclude, for example, that war in Afghanistan is unnecessary and should be rapidly concluded?

Thus, the failure is not with the American people for not grasping the strategic significance of defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida in their bastions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border but the failure of elected officials in Washington. Fortunately, however, this failure can be corrected by finding leaders prepared to explain comprehensibly just what is at stake in this long conflict.

To begin, we are conducting “defense at a distance” in Afghanistan, fighting the terrorists there so they cannot reconstitute themselves and gravely threaten us at home, as on Sept. 11, 2001. U.S. and NATO withdrawal seems nearly certain to lead to Karzai's government falling, with the Taliban re-establishing control and inviting al-Qaida back to Afghanistan as partners. At that point, Afghanistan would again be a base for international terrorism, as we experienced on 9/11, precisely the reasons we overthrew the Taliban. And, tragically, we will have given up all we sacrificed to prevent just such a recurrence of the terrorist threat.

Second, we now recognize an added strategic threat if the Taliban retake control in Kabul, namely the increased likelihood that Pakistani Taliban and other radicals could seize control in that country. That would mean both another base for global terror attacks and also Pakistan's substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands, including those in Iran. Terrorists would have access to nuclear weapons they could detonate in cities around the world, rendering decades of counterproliferation efforts meaningless.

These are the strategic interests in defeating the Taliban that justify our leaving forces in Afghanistan and continuing active military operations against them for as long as it takes. This is not the same as “nation building,” which rarely works in practice and which is also truly unpopular with American voters, who see it as a gravy train for ungrateful foreigners. We are not in Afghanistan to benefit the Afghans, but to benefit ourselves.

Thus explained, Americans are far more likely to support the necessary war against terrorism in Afghanistan. Of course, if our political “leaders” fail to make this case, we will learn the lesson only when the terrorists attack us again, perhaps this time with nuclear weapons.

We can avoid this outcome but it requires leadership plainly missing from Barack Obama. The question is whether Republicans have the capacity and the will to fill in the void Obama has left.

John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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