In every war, one question that must be constantly reassessed is, "Is this war worth the cost we're paying in money and lives?"
In some cases, like the long slog of World War II, despite mounting casualties, the answer was always, "Yes." In Vietnam, as more and more of our fallen came home, it became increasingly apparent that the answer was, "No." And so, when I saw the news that four Americans were killed at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan about a month ago, it became time to ask that question again. Apparently, President Barack Obama is doing the same.
Under current circumstances, the answer is clear: The current mission in Afghanistan is not worth the price, nor is it worth keeping thousands of Americans there after Mr. Obama's previously laid-out 2014 withdrawal. As long as Americans are fighting a nation-building war over there, whether in explicitly stated combat roles, or "Advise, Train and Assist" roles that still amount to combat, we will face more losses. The only way to stop those losses is to get out.
The reason this isn't worth the price in American lives is simple. First, we have set up a democracy in Afghanistan, but it is up to the people there to keep it — not our troops. Second, it has become increasingly apparent that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is not committed to working within a process to create stability and democracy. He seems to thrive on trashing America and our troops, and it won't stop until he believes we're there to serve only him.
Democracy is like a computer. It takes hardware: a firmly designed form of government, and software: fair elections with varied choices for people to choose from. We've already helped provide the hardware. But no barrel of a gun can create the software. That's a political process, and protecting democracy from those who would undermine it is an internal Afghan issue. Simply put, we cannot want democracy more than the people and leadership of Afghanistan want it. Whether we have one single American troop there or a million, that equation never changes.
Mr. Karzai is seeming less and less committed to that goal. As Americans have started to reach out to the Taliban, in peace talks aimed at preserving Afghanistan and its form of government, Mr. Karzai has walked away. Like a petulant child, he insults America's troops as "demons," which is insulting to me and every other member of the military who knows men and women who have shed blood and died to set up what Mr. Karzai has. And, while he says he is committed to stepping down in 2014, as he is term limited, there are constant rumors that he is looking for ways to hold on to power, which undermines the very democracy we've helped set up.
That's why it wasn't surprising to read that Mr. Obama is seriously considering speeding up our withdrawal and leaving no residual forces behind.
The story being reported may very well be a designed to spook Mr. Karzai into getting the message that we could leave him high and dry. That message could force him back to the negotiating table in a way that recognizes the United States as a partner, not an adversary. However, that doesn't preclude it from being a very real option that is under serious consideration.
Indeed, the president may be giving Mr. Karzai a dose of his own medicine, and frankly it is about time. Regardless, we cannot keep troops in Afghanistan, post-2014, simply to protect Mr. Karzai, should he refuse to give up power. president Obama has to make contingency plans to remove all troops, in case it becomes clear that Mr. Karzai acts under the theory that the Afghan people and government are there to serve him, and not the other way around.
Could this all change? Yes. If it seems we have a real partner in Afghanistan that allows our troops to operate there in strict counter-terror operations, to protect American security, some troops may be left there at permanent bases. Right now, however, that's a huge "if."
Given that, Mr. Obama seems to have done what all of us in the military do — reassess. After having seen his "surge" of troops in Afghanistan fail to bring about lasting security or stability, and considering what kind of partner (or lack thereof) he has in Mr. Karzai, President Obama is coming closer to the same conclusion that many of us did long ago — protecting the Karzai government is no longer worth the price.
Jon Soltz is chairman and co-founder of VoteVets.org and an Iraq War veteran. He can be reached on Twitter, @jonsoltz.