After visiting Afghanistan last month, Sen. Jon Tester more firmly believes a July deadline to start withdrawing troops is the right thing to do. We agree -- though we hope that's enough time for the nascent Afghan government and military to be trained enough to stand on their own.
In an interview with a member of the Independent Record editorial board last week, Tester, a Democrat, said he feels better about the United States' nearly decade-long involvement in Afghanistan than he did before he went. It's an effort that began in earnest shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, and has now lasted longer than the invasion by the former Soviet Union. Efforts like this can be disheartening, costly and seemingly endless -- but on the flip side, it's critical that Afghanistan is stable before U.S. troops withdraw.
"The real rub is going to be, after this is over, after we move out, after all we have is a diplomatic presence there, if in fact Afghanistan, and Iraq for that matter, are stable and move forward in a way that provides stability in the Middle East, because that's really critically important in this part of the world," Tester said.
But having said that, putting a deadline in place puts the onus on the Afghan people to start tending their own house. Tester said he saw examples of Afghan troops, and not Americans, confronting the Taliban, which is important for political reasons now and provides some hope that the country can stand on its own when every American soldier is home.
"I cannot emphasize enough the power the president had when he said we're going to start removing troops in July," Tester said. "It really put pressure on the Afghans to say, "All right, these guys aren't going to be here forever, we need to step up and take control of our future.' And I think we need to continue that pressure, and when we have the possibility of removing troops, we ought to be doing it."
The obstacles are significant. Illiteracy rates are high, and there's the thornier issue of enemies fleeing across the border to Pakistan, which presents further diplomatic and military problems. Tester acknowledged that American impacts in Pakistan are minimal, at least from what he saw.
"Our greatest hope for Pakistan (would be that) we're making advances in Afghanistan, Pakistan's sitting there watching this, and hopefully they'll say, "You know what, it worked in Afghanistan, we can make it work here.' "
The withdrawal, which Tester has long and vocally supported, won't happen overnight -- the last troops aren't due home for another three-plus years. Is that enough time to leave the country in better, lasting shape than we found it? Time will tell, and there are reasons for both optimism and pessimism.
But we may have reached a point of diminishing returns in the country, where the cost in taxpayer dollars and American blood isn't buying us the stability we need from the region. We can't just throw up our hands and come home, but a firm timeline and plans to withdraw are the right course of action in Afghanistan.