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Looming exit from Afghanistan raises questions

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during news conference Presidential Palace Kabul January 14 2013.   Afghan elders will decide

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a news conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on January 14, 2013. Afghan elders will decide on the key issue of whether US soldiers remaining in the country after 2014 will be granted immunity from prosecution, President Hamid Karzai said on 14 January. US President Barack Obama warned last week that no US troops would remain behind in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO forces in 2014 unless they were granted immunity from prosecution in local courts. AFP PHOTO/ SHAH MaraiSHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

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Updated: January 31, 2013 5:12PM

The wind-down of the Afghan war is starting. War-weary Americans are ready for it, and President Barack Obama has made no secret that he wants out. The question that remains is whether more than a decade of fighting there has ended the threat of Islamist terrorists using Afghanistan as a staging ground for attacks on America as they did Sept. 11, 2001.

In announcing that he was quickening the pace of troop withdrawals, Obama acknowledged the United States has “probably not” achieved “everything that some might have imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios.” Instead, he said, America is “in the process of achieving” the goal of being able “to shape a strong relationship with a responsible Afghan government that is willing to cooperate with us to make sure that it is not a launching pad for future attacks against the United States.”

In the process of achieving. That’s hardly reassuring. The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is notorious for being corrupt, inefficient, unreliable and mistrusted in many parts of the country. A Pentagon assessment last month found just one of the 23 brigades of the Afghan National Army able to operate independently of U.S. military support.

Yet Obama said that this spring America will end unilateral combat operations and concentrate on “training, advising, assisting Afghan” forces and speed up the U.S. troop withdrawal, leaving only a few thousand troops in Afghanistan after 2014. For his part, Karzai, perhaps recognizing the inevitability of the U.S. pullback, campaigned for coalition troops to leave Afghan villages and turn over prison facilities to his government in an assertion of Afghan sovereignty.

As one who has argued that U.S. troops should be brought home immediately, I find Obama’s message welcome. My argument was that the administration months ago wrote off Afghanistan and thus the continued sacrifice of U.S. lives there isn’t likely to change the realities of Afghanistan. Obama’s attempt at nation building with a temporary troop surge didn’t change the fundamentals of Afghanistan.

It remains to be seen whether there is good reason to be confident America has an Afghan government to help make sure the country doesn’t revert to a launching pad for future attacks. The Taliban haven’t been defeated. Karzai or his successor after elections next year will have to negotiate with the Taliban. The Islamist fanatics will be back as part of the government or, worse, in control again.

The best hope for Afghanistan not becoming a terror staging ground may lie in the Taliban’s experience of being kicked out of power because of al-Qaida’s 9/11 attack. Ruling Afghanistan may be important enough to Mullah Omar and the Taliban that they wouldn’t risk losing power again with another mega-attack. That would be a rational response to the events of the last decade.

And Islamist terrorists have moved the locus of their operations elsewhere — to the remote tribal areas of Pakistan, to Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Iraq, and most recently to Mali. The threat of al-Qaida toppling the government of Mali is so great France has sent in troops and bombed terrorist targets.

Then again, the Taliban is made up of Islamist fanatics and fanatics tend to be immune to rationality.

Maybe global jihad could be more important than ruling one country, and they’d welcome al-Qaida back.

The war against Islamist terror will not end with our leaving Afghanistan. The only question will be this: Is Afghanistan permanently out of the terror war on the West?

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