British Prime Minister David Cameron announced this week that 500 combat troops will be coming home without replacement in the months ahead -- leaving 9,000 British soldiers and Royal Marines on the battlefield. In The Hague, the Dutch parliament voted to bring home all but 160 of the 1,600 Dutch soldiers from the mountainous Kunduz province. Those who remain will be limited to providing security for a police training mission -- now supervised by Germany. And in Paris, President Nicolas Sarkozy -- facing a re-election campaign of his own next year -- has decided to start withdrawing an unspecified number of the 4,000 French troops now in Afghanistan.
Thirty-three nations currently contribute troops and/or trainers to the 150,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Right now, two-thirds of them are Americans. The goal, set by President Barack Obama and seconded by NATO and the non-NATO members of the coalition, is to turn over responsibility for all internal and external security to the Afghans in 2014. If current projections are borne out, there will then be 370,000 trained and equipped Afghan soldiers, police officers and airmen.
That's a tall order, given the accelerated schedule of allied troop withdrawals and deteriorating relations with neighboring Pakistan. Sen. John McCain, visiting Kabul this week, said Obama's decision on the scope and pace of the drawdown "was made without recommendation from our military commanders," which "poses an unnecessary risk."
True. But Afghanistan isn't a lost cause -- just tougher than it otherwise might have been with a slower withdrawal. The improvements in the Afghan national security forces we have witnessed in the past three years are simply stunning -- and soon irreversible. Here's why:
Less than 28 percent of Afghanistan's population is literate. Thanks to the Taliban's "no schools are good schools" education program, the literacy rate for military-age males is even lower. For women in the same age cohort, it's appalling. But thanks to the U.S.-led NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, that's all changing.
During our most recent fast-paced visit, I asked scores of Afghan police officers and soldiers -- in training and in the field -- why they volunteered to don a uniform. To a man -- and woman -- they replied, "To serve and protect my country" and "to learn how to use this!" At that, they proudly pulled out a pen and a notebook.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William Caldwell IV, the NTM-A commander, put it this way: "Developing Afghan leaders is and will continue to be our No. 1 priority." No matter what the headlines say, they are doing just that. Teaching an 18-year-old Afghan police or military volunteer how to read, write and shoot isn't so exciting as winning a gunfight with Taliban insurgents, but it may well be the most enduring legacy of our long war in the shadows of the Hindu Kush.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.