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Time to Leave Afghanistan

Time to Leave Afghanistan

By Richard Cohen - June 21, 2011

Not long after Afghanistan goes off its meds -- American and other troops, oodles of aid, civilian technicians and so much cash that airplanes have to strain to smuggle it out of the country -- it will revert to Afghanistan. The Taliban will come down from the mountains and from Pakistan and either make a deal with the government or reassume control. This is not only what will happen in the future. It is what has happened in the past.

From the start, America's huge investment in Afghanistan has been a mistake. It was always necessary, not to mention just plain right, to go after Osama bin Laden and kill every last one of al-Qaeda. That job has mostly been done. But the rest -- the routing of the Taliban and the building of a democratic state -- is beyond America's reach. The troops -- most of them -- should come home.

President Obama has always shown a commendable lack of enthusiasm for the Afghanistan War. His 2009 decision to commit an additional 30,000 troops to the effort -- the so-called West Point surge -- was an obvious split-the-difference calculation, fewer troops than the military wanted, many more than war critics thought were warranted. Now, Obama must decide how many of America's approximately 100,000 troops should remain. As few as possible would be the wise decision.

The trouble with recommending such a course is that it conforms to the foreign policy views of almost all Republican presidential candidates. Their position regarding Afghanistan is, however, just a piece of their wholesale embrace of Herbert Hoover Republicanism. They would turn the country inward -- what John McCain and Lindsey Graham characterize as isolationism -- while also adopting Hoover's disastrous economic policy. The historical ignorance so obvious in our youth is an appropriate homage to their GOP elders. Not satisfied with a recession, they would cut government spending and bring on a depression.

The Republican response to both foreign and domestic problems somehow fits what is beginning to look like the 1930s all over again. Back then, a severe worldwide depression encouraged the rise of fascist and communist movements and turned nations inward. The situation is now not as dire, but when outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates complained about NATO's reluctance to actually do something in Libya, he was talking about governments that are severely pinched -- some of them, like Greece, Portugal and Spain, teetering on the cusp of bankruptcy. The same inverted demographic dilemma that confronts the U.S. -- too few young to support too many old -- confronts the rest of the industrialized world. China, with its one-child policy, is soon to learn what I mean.

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cohenr@washpost.com

Copyright 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

Richard Cohen

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