Four high-ranking officers, one active duty, the other three recently retired, spent one Saturday night at my place in New Jersey following a West Point football game a couple of years back.
There is a barrel full of metals between them, and decades of noble sacrifice and courageous service for our country. They are the real deal, hard core war fighters who led -- and lead -- men in blood and guts battle.
They are the warrior elite -- members of the tight fraternity of combat veterans that defies challenge from the sort of made-for-media military expert who ponders war from the comfort of a television studio or university classroom.
It was 2009 and President Obama had just ordered a surge of 30,000 forces into “the epicenter of violent extremism” and I was delighted with the prospect of victory. "Now we’ll crush the sons of bitches," I exclaimed, fist clenched, chest puffed, and certain that the Taliban and al Qaeda forces currently terrorizing that harsh and primitive land would soon be routed. Forget the lessons of Afghan history.
The British and Soviet empires were not the United States. With the war in Iraq winding down, our New World Colossus would finally have the resources to crush the Afghan enemy.
Surprisingly, none of the quartet of heroes shared my enthusiasm. They exchanged knowing glances and didn’t say much until one of the retired officers shook his head and said "I’m not so sure."
Since that night along the Hudson River, I’ve followed our forces as they surged into the ancient, war-torn land that straddles the Himalayan foothills separating India from the rest of Asia, and watched as they won battle after battle -- the Sixth Marines in Helmand Province; the 101st Airborne along the Pakistan border; the Taliban bleeding and on the run everywhere. But in the midst of that true grit and guts, I could see the physical manifestation of the skepticism my friends had expressed.
As the Marines routed the Taliban from their long-held sanctuaries, they marched on endless fields of opium poppies, because over the last ten years of continuous war, the country we were fighting to save from extremists had become a narco-state, addicted to drug money.
As the 101st fought and died to beat the Hakkani network of cut-throats and terrorists in the South and East, our ersatz allies the Pakistanis were turning a blind eye to infiltration.
And in the capital, big wigs associated with the Karzai government in Kabul were getting rich off foreign aid, mostly American, even as Afghan troops turned their weapons on their U.S. and European trainers.
Unlike the fiasco in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan had real purpose. The Taliban government played willing host to the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. Savage al Qaeda attacked us, confident that they could count on the Taliban to give them sanctuary. At tremendous cost in blood and treasure, we proved them wrong. Al Qaeda was crushed, the Taliban government routed. Most importantly, the architect of the attacks, Osama Bin Laden, is dead.
Now Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has announced that our combat role in Afghanistan will end a year earlier than anticipated, by the end of 2013. And that, as in Iraq, our mission will transition from war fighting to training, advisory and assistance as we head for the exits.
The presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney is harshly criticizing the president for the announcement, saying that we are giving aid and comfort to the enemy by telegraphing our moves in the field (as if the Taliban doesn’t see the airplanes departing Bagram or Kandahar air bases already).
Others decry the pull-out announcement as timed to help the Democrats in the November elections, or because it will undermine Afghanistan’s struggling civilian government, or because the Afghan police and military we are training will not be ready.
Romney and the other critics are right, but it is almost beside the point.
We have spent ten years at war in Afghanistan, two and a half times longer than we spent waging World War II. How many more years, how many more lives and how much more American tax money would be enough to stabilize and westernize that perpetually medieval country?
We killed the man who killed our friends and neighbors on that September morning a decade ago. It is past time to declare victory and to bring the troops home. And if you don’t believe me ask the warriors who actually do the fighting and the dying.
Geraldo Rivera is a senior columnist for Fox News Latino.