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Opinion

Douglas Wissing: America's 'tough love' withdrawal from Afghanistan

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Opinion,Op-Eds

In his inaugural address, President Obama declared that "enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war."

As he seeks to complete an announced troop withdrawal in Afghanistan by next year, those words are fast becoming reality on the ground as American commanders, after more than a decade of U.S.-led warfare, insist that their Afghan counterparts take over the fight.

One seasoned commander termed it "tough love," and I have witnessed it firsthand as an independent journalist embedded with American troops since early January.

American officers have no choice but to push the Afghan security forces forward. It's a big change for Afghan commanders, who are used to U.S. troops taking the lead and the formidable firepower and air support the Americans provide.

Across the insurgent heartland of eastern and southern Afghanistan, U.S. commitment is rapidly receding. Equipment has been shipped out, and forward bases and combat outposts are being closed or transferred to Afghan security forces.

Combat Outpost Tillman, named for the NFL star and special operations forces soldier Pat Tillman, who died in an infamous friendly fire incident, is now a soccer field where Afghan boys play a wolfish style of football.

As the Obama administration floats the trial balloon of zero troops in Afghanistan, soldiers here talk about the spring 2013 drawdown of 20 percent of the remaining 66,000 US troops, with an additional 50 percent to be gone soon after.

How are the Afghans responding to the reduction?

Among some, there is clearly denial. They simply can't imagine a country rich enough, or foolish enough, to walk away from the enormous investment poured into these military bases, many of them just built during the boom that accompanied Obama's troop surge.

Aid and development money are drying up. I listened to one Afghan government farm worker in insecure Zabul province insist a U.S. military development team needed to build a fence around a section of a U.S.-financed Afghan demonstration farm. The U.S. commander patiently told the farmer he should ask his provincial agriculture minister to do it.

Many Afghans tell me they are very pessimistic about post-2014 security. Others are angry, believing the quick withdrawal under pressure will leave Afghan troops vulnerable. At some point when troop levels have dropped, they say, all a force can do is protect itself.

As U.S. forces withdraw after well over a decade of war, the insurgents have responded in various ways. IEDs continue to be the weapon of choice. Media-magnet complex attacks, such as the spectacular summertime attacks on Kabul and Camp Bastion when Prince William was stationed there, broadcast the news that the insurgency is still thriving.

In some formerly insecure provinces such as Khost, insurgent attacks have diminished. It remains to be seen, however, whether the insurgent forces have been destroyed or are merely waiting for the withdrawal -- and whether Afghan troops, in the absence of American counterparts, can handle those insurgents.

If all goes as President Obama has promised it will, we'll learn the answer next year.

Douglas Wissing, a journalist who embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, is the author of "Funding the Enemy: How US Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban" (Prometheus, 2012).

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