Afghan timetable: Some decisions remain on the U.S. withdrawal

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President Barack Obama's meeting Friday with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai produced one important decision but left two more still up in the air.

The underlying truth of the situation between the countries is that, first, Americans are tired of the war and want the United States out of it. The first few years of it were justified, constituting the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks, but it has continued for 11 years. It has cost the country too much in money, during straitened financial circumstances, an estimated $1.2 trillion. It has cost too many American lives, more than 2,100, and now some are the result of attacks by uniformed Afghans, whom Americans are training to defend their own country.

Some of the Afghans, too, are ready to see the Americans depart. They resent the elements of the U.S. presence that amount to de facto occupation. They don't like some of the military actions in their villages. They especially dislike the drone and other air attacks on Afghans, which sometimes claim the lives of innocent civilians. Although some Afghans have profited financially from the U.S. presence, through development projects as well as through payments for services rendered our forces, there is a culture of dependence that has evolved over the past decade.

But neither side wants to be the first to say goodbye.

On the positive side last week, Mr. Obama announced that U.S. forces will hand over the combat role to Afghan forces this spring, sooner than had originally been planned. If U.S. analysis of the state of readiness is to be believed, Afghan forces may not be ready to assume that responsibility.

On the negative side, Mr. Obama's public statements left two pieces of the future unclear. The first was the pace and timetable of the withdrawal of the 66,000 U.S. forces still in Afghanistan. That is important to the Afghans, but also to the NATO countries that have forces there. The second loose end is the more important question of how many troops the United States will leave behind, to continue training Afghan forces and to fend off any return of al-Qaida, after the bulk of the Americans have been withdrawn.

The answer to the first question should be, as fast as possible. The answer to the second should be, none. Oversight and response to any return of al-Qaida to Afghanistan can and should be assured by satellite, drone and other U.S. air assets, not by leaving Americans behind and vulnerable.

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