The Best News Out of Afghanistan

The mistakes made were tragic. But the lessons learned can be valuable

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

In the beginning, as American troops pushed toward Baghdad in March 2003, General David Petraeus asked Rick Atkinson of the Washington Post a famous question: "Tell me how this ends?" For years, the Petraeus question has stood as a sober, unanswered counterpoint to George W. Bush's swaggering, inaccurate mission accomplished banner.

But now, with the NATO decision to pull all combat troops out of Afghanistan by the middle of next year, we can hazard some guesses. The Bush war on terrorism will end as it began and should have remained--a special-forces war. It is as John Kerry described it in the 2004 presidential campaign: a constant national-security concern, requiring intense intelligence work and occasional special operations, but one that never required a major commitment of U.S. forces. It also ends better than we had any right to expect, given the disastrously stupid invasion of Iraq--a fact largely attributable to the job Petraeus did to stabilize the situation there in 2007.

Of course, it isn't really over. The consequences of the U.S. response to the terrorist attacks of September 2001 will ramify for decades. Iraq may fall into civil war or dissolve entirely (the Kurds already have signaled their intent to achieve de facto independence), or it may enjoy a rush of oil wealth that will salve the Sunni-Shi'ite friction. Afghanistan seems likely to remain trapped in its perpetual civil war between the southern Pashtun and the northern ethnic factions. The NATO decision carries with it the implicit faith that the Afghan National Army, composed almost entirely of non-Pashtuns, will be able to keep the Taliban out of Kabul. This will be done at some expense: an estimated $4 billion a year in aid, mostly from the U.S. But it also reflects a new reality: the war against al-Qaeda has gone elsewhere and become more diffuse.

On the very day of NATO's Afghanistan decision, an al-Qaeda suicide bomber decimated a military parade in Yemen, killing at least 100 and wounding hundreds more. This followed the CIA's successful infiltration of a Yemen-based al-Qaeda cell that was hoping to blow up an airliner with an advanced version of an underwear bomb. Yes, there are still miscreants like Ayman al-Zawahiri wandering the Pakistani borderlands, but al-Qaeda's center of gravity seems to have moved to Yemen, where it will be fought with drones and special-ops teams. That is relatively good news on several counts. The best news is that tens of thousands of American troops will no longer need to be in harm's way.

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