Although President Barack Obama has not yet announced how many -- if any -- troops would remain in Afghanistan after the scheduled 2014 withdrawal, it's disappointing that top Pentagon officials indicate that a contingent of U.S. forces may stay.
The Post-Gazette, like many Americans, favors the zero option. As with the complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, no American forces should be left in Afghanistan after 2014. By the end of next year, Americans will have served there for 13 years, longer than in Vietnam.
Yet based on statements made Sunday on television news programs by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Pentagon may have pocketed from the White House a commitment to keep an unknown number of forces there. While Mr. Panetta asserted that the United States is committed to "an enduring presence" in Afghanistan, Mr. Dempsey said that the U.S. mission was "to establish a secure and capable Afghanistan that can govern itself," which sounds like continued nation-building for an indefinite period.
The arguments for no continued U.S. presence remain valid. Whatever the United States has achieved already would not sustain an argument for staying. Afghanistan's armed forces are not considered to be credible in spite of substantial U.S. and other NATO training. Some Afghan personnel have attacked Americans and other NATO soldiers. President Hamid Karzai's government remains shockingly corrupt. A reduced U.S. contingent would be vulnerable to attack by the Taliban and others. Americans are as tired of the cost in lives and dollars in Afghanistan as they were of Iraq.
Despite the public will, the U.S. defense establishment is eager to keep American forces there, in part, to justify its budget in the face of impending cuts and to support arms sales, which would require more training and support. That is not a good reason.
Mr. Obama needs to make a clear choice of the zero option and communicate that forcefully to senior military officials. Their implying a different decision, or advertising for one on television, is not helpful.