This op-ed originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on May 5, 2011.
President Obama has now gained the moral and political capital to responsibly end the U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. With an average of 30 to 50 Americans being killed each month in Afghanistan, the total will be well over 1,000 on Obama's watch if nothing is done. In addition to saving lives, removing 60,000 troops from Afghanistan in 2011-12 would also save about $70 billion a year in tax dollars.
The targeted killing of Osama bin Laden is powerful evidence that terrorist threats, both real and hypothetical, can be more effectively suppressed by special forces operations than by deploying hundreds of thousands of American soldiers on the ground.
The Bin Laden operation proves that a counterterrorism strategy focusing on intelligence, airstrikes and special forces units, as advocated by people such as Vice President Joe Biden and conservative columnist George Will, would be an effective deterrent against any new clandestine cells seeking to launch attacks against the United States.
If we are not sending ground troops into European cities like Berlin or London, where terrorist plots are also being conceived, why are there 150,000 American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq? By the strange logic of intervention, shouldn't NATO be occupying Europe?
If the answer in Afghanistan is to fight the Taliban insurgency, that's not a national security threat by any definition. And if the Taliban, for some reason, should wish to host a revived Al Qaeda, U.S. intelligence and special forces would be able to handle the problem.
In Iraq, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, already the largest in the world, is expected to double its staff over the next year to 16,000, not counting a small army of private contractors. In 2003, a supposed threat in Iraq against the United States was trumped up to justify the U.S. invasion. But such a threat is remote and does not require keeping troops in the country as unwelcome occupiers.
Pakistan is another matter. Critics of intervention like myself believe the U.S. only inflames anti-American sentiment, kills innocent civilians and feeds the insurgents by escalating drone strikes there. (Obama, interestingly, rejected such an aerial attack option to get Bin Laden). But it is impossible politically for Obama to pull back from Pakistan now that so much public and congressional opinion is inflamed against that country's possible protection of Bin Laden. Ending the long and secret war in Pakistan will take further public debate, but it could begin with power-sharing talks over Afghanistan.
There is no excuse for not beginning to end these wars one at a time, at vast savings in lives and billions in tax dollars. This is Obama's moment of opportunity. Let the hawks in the Pentagon and the Republican Party call for endless war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama can campaign on ending two quagmires, and on breaking the momentum of the long war on terrorism that some propose. Indeed, the Democratic National Committee, even before the weekend mission against Bin Laden, passed without dissent a resolution by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) calling for a significant withdrawal from Afghanistan starting this summer.
The president must announce two pivotal decisions quickly. First, he has to decide whether to say no to those clamoring for just a token withdrawal from Afghanistan starting in July. He should say yes to the peace bloc of Americans who strongly support the phased withdrawal of 50,000 to 70,000 troops from Afghanistan starting in July and ending more rapidly than the president's hazy goal of 2014.
Second, he has to face down those pushing for the Iraqi government to request that our troops stay past the December deadline. The president should say no to this Iraq lobby, knowing that a residual force of Americans would provoke a new cycle of anti-Americanism in the streets and in Iraq's parliament, and threaten Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's fragile regime.
This is a unique moment for rank-and-file and congressional antiwar forces to seize every opportunity to prevail on the president to make the right decision.
Tom Hayden has taught courses at Scripps College on "the long war on terrorism," counterinsurgency, Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. He is the author of "The Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama."
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