Bloomberg View: Speeding the Pullout from Afghanistan; No Band-Aids for U.S. Schools

Speeding the Pullout from Afghanistan ● Band-Aids Aren't School Reform


On Feb. 15, Afghans marked Liberation Day, the 23rd anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Recent developments are hastening another liberation—that of the U.S. from Afghanistan.

France’s surprise announcement on Jan. 27 that its troops would move from combat to training roles this March and withdraw by the end of 2013 has had a catalyzing effect. Days later, U.S. Department of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said U.S. troops would be in a “training, advise, and assist role” by “the mid- to latter part of 2013.” Meanwhile, the U.S., the Taliban, and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai have stepped up their awkward pas de trois over direct peace negotiations. If all goes well, the U.S. hopes that such talks will be under way in time for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Chicago this May, when members of the coalition will discuss the future of the military mission in Afghanistan.

Before making a continuing commitment, NATO needs to have an honest discussion about its merits. Start with the Taliban, which despite the gains of the U.S. troop surge remains a resilient force. If the coalition is not willing or able to muster the forces needed to extirpate the Taliban from the battlefield, some kind of political negotiation seems to be the only viable path forward. Yet as seasoned observers have noted, why would the Taliban agree to a settlement that allows for a foreign military presence intended to keep them in check? In other words, you can have political reconciliation, or you can have an effective coalition presence, but it will be very difficult to have both.

The other argument for keeping a robust U.S. presence in Afghanistan is to have a base from which to strike insurgents and terrorists in Pakistan. That ignores the vulnerability of coalition supply lines through Pakistan, whose military has demonstrated time and again that it is a frenemy at best. To improve the stability of Afghanistan and the region, the U.S. would be wise to end any kind of reliance on Pakistan, cut military aid to that country except for official exchanges and training, and simultaneously expand its development assistance (including trade preferences) to the Pakistani people.

Afghanistan is still a long way from having a democratic and accountable government. But establishing such a government was never part of Operation Enduring Freedom, which began as an effort, President George W. Bush said, “to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.”

The rule of holes—when you’re in one, stop digging—may not be the most elegant theory of foreign relations, but in this case it makes sense. The U.S. should stick to the Panetta 2013 timeline and depart next year.


The Obama administration has begun issuing long-awaited waivers giving states flexibility in complying with the No Child Left Behind law. But with the exception of politicians, educators, and parents in the 11 states that have received them, nobody seems happy with the changes.

The goal of NCLB—not actually a new law but an ambitious 2002 reauthorization of the Lyndon B. Johnson-era Elementary and Secondary Education Act—was to use federal money as a carrot and sanctions as a stick to push states to set high standards for school improvement and establish concrete measures of student performance. It’s been a qualified success.

Nonetheless, any legislation a decade old will show cracks in its foundations, and No Child Left Behind has its share. The one that led to the current turning point was a mandate that all U.S. children reach proficiency in math and language arts by 2014, a requirement that even the law’s authors must have realized was unachievable. When Congress didn’t amend and reauthorize the act, Education Secretary Arne Duncan did by issuing waivers.

Despite all the hoopla, the waivers simply continue the federal shift away from the old law’s emphasis on closing schools that fail to meet annual progress requirements and toward the incentive-laden approach of the administration’s Race to the Top grant-making initiative. But a Band-Aid won’t suffice. States and schools will remain in limbo until Congress passes an improved version of the education act.

There are many areas for improvement. For example, No Child Left Behind has encouraged teachers and administrators to worry less about nurturing high-achieving students than about meeting “adequate yearly progress” targets and getting as many students rated “proficient” as possible. The law has also proved highly arbitrary in punishing schools that have failed to close achievement gaps between regular pupils and those in special education, or between native speakers of English and those learning it as a second language.

Given public sentiment and the Republican-controlled House, the centerpiece of any new law will probably be to grant states more freedom to become laboratories of reform. The question is: Who will set benchmarks for performance?

Conservatives adamantly oppose federally administered standards, and many have promoted the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a laudable project led largely by 45 governors. But early supporters complain that entrenched educational interests have dumbed down Common Core’s standards.

States can’t have it both ways. If they want the money from No Child Left Behind they will have to accept a federal role in K-12 education. Without some baseline agreement on robust national standards, the U.S. risks falling further behind in global educational achievement.

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