When President Barack Obama announced a surge of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan in December 2009, he said the "overarching goal" was "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
He elaborated with three specific objectives: "We must deny al-Qaida a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future."
In a Wednesday evening speech to the nation, the president declared that because of efforts of "our men and women in uniform, our civilian personnel and our many coalition partners" that progress has been made on each of these objectives.
Accordingly, the president announced that starting next month the U.S. will begin to withdraw military forces from Afghanistan.
Specifically, between now and the end of this year, 10,000 troops will return from Afghanistan, followed by an additional 23,000 troops during the first half of next year. This drawdown essentially marks the end of Obama's surge.
Much will be said about whether this withdrawal is more strategic politically than militarily. The pullback will likely resonate with an economically fragile and war-weary electorate at home.
But this is not mere political expediency. There has been significant strategic progress in Afghanistan since 2009. Al-Qaida has been effectively decapitated and driven out of the region, an effort forcefully punctuated by the death of Osama bin Laden seven weeks ago.
The Taliban no longer rule Afghanistan. There have been meaningful efforts to create the conditions for a civil society and train Afghan security forces. Women have begun to regain basic rights and education denied them under the Taliban, and now hold seats in parliament and Afghan President Hamid Karzai's cabinet.
We worry that too precipitous a withdrawal could put some of these achievements at risk. But we are encouraged that military leadership will decide who will come home and what the battlefield tactics and priorities will be. We are encouraged that the overall military strategy will continue to be one of forceful counter-insurgency.
Given the increasing size and competence of the Afghan forces and the severe degradation of Taliban insurgents, the president's overall strategy strikes us as a measured and responsible way to begin disengagement without yielding ground.
Afghanistan is no modern paradise and significant work to secure a lasting peace remains. But much can be accomplished by the Afghans themselves and without the current level of American military commitment.
The successful operation to take out bin Laden demonstrated that superior intelligence, coupled with focused military actions, can be a highly effective counter-terrorist strategy in the Western Asian landscape.
The drawdown is certainly welcome fiscal news. The cost of sponsoring one solider in Afghanistan (and there are 100,000 troops there now) is $1 million per year. A reallocation of these precious funds is welcome.
The strategy of prosecuting the war's end with an increased reliance on Afghan forces comes with risks. But they are calculated risks and the strategy allows the president to share confidently these welcome words: "The tide of war is receding."
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