Afghanistan is called the “graveyard of empires” and there’s a reason for that. Consider all the invasions – from Alexander the Great to the Greeks to Genghis Khan to the British (twice) and then the Soviets, back when they were the Soviets, not the Russians. They each came, they each conquered, they each set up shop, and then… and then they were gone, having drained their treasures and lost armies, for nothing at all. Afghanistan was never folded into anyone’s empire. No one even gained an ally. These empires eventually folded, Afghanistan didn’t. Messing around in Afghanistan just weakened them. The Soviet Union found that out. Ten years in Afghanistan, some antiwar riots in the streets back in Moscow, and then the Soviet Union was no more. This wasn’t cause and effect, but Afghanistan had helped bury the former Soviet empire. It has always been a graveyard of that kind. Avoid it if possible.
We showed up in October 2001 – to get rid of the government there, controlled by the Taliban, and to get rid of the Talban itself, which had been hosting al-Qaeda there. We did that, but somehow that turned into Operation Enduring Freedom – we had to hang around to make sure the Taliban didn’t return, at least until there was an Afghan army that could do that, and a stable Afghan government to direct that army and get the place functioning again. Then we’d leave, before the place ruined us too. We’d be the exception. That was the general idea. This would be one more instance of American exceptionalism.
Oops. We aren’t the exception:
President Obama halted the withdrawal of American military forces from Afghanistan on Thursday, announcing that the United States will keep thousands of troops in the country through the end of his term in 2017 and indefinitely prolonging the American role in a war that has already lasted 14 years.
In a brief statement from the Roosevelt Room in the White House, Mr. Obama said he continued to oppose the idea of “endless war.” But the president, who once traveled to Afghanistan to declare “the light of a new day on the horizon,” said Thursday that a longer-term American presence there was vital to the security of the United States and a country that is beset by the Taliban, their allies from Al Qaeda, and militants from the Islamic State.
“While America’s combat mission in Afghanistan may be over, our commitment to Afghanistan and its people endures,” said Mr. Obama, flanked by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and top military leaders. “I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again.”
Obama continued to oppose the idea of “endless war” – fine, but he seems to be okay with endless quasi-war – combat missions that aren’t quite combat missions – and with leaving any attempt to explain the difference to President Trump, or to the second President Clinton, or the third President Bush:
While the president has succeeded in vastly reducing the American military presence in both countries, the United States has returned a modest force to Iraq to help Baghdad in its fight against the Islamic State. And with Thursday’s announcement, Mr. Obama leaves a commitment of thousands of troops – and the decision about how and when to end the war in Afghanistan – to his successor.
But, for now, there’s this:
The current American force in Afghanistan of 9,800 troops will remain in place through most of 2016 under the administration’s revised plans, before dropping to about 5,500 at the end of next year or in early 2017, Mr. Obama said. He called it a “modest but meaningful expansion of our presence” in that country.
Yes, an expansion, and an admission:
The president said he was not disappointed by a decision that clouds what he had said in 2012 was “a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan.” Mr. Obama said Thursday that the administration had always understood the potential for adjustments in troop levels even as the military sought to withdraw troops from battle. But by making his announcement, Mr. Obama conceded that despite more than a decade of fighting, and years building the Afghan Army and the police – a project that has cost the United States more than $65 billion – the Afghan forces are still not fully up to the task of protecting their country.
We’re in a quagmire, burning through billions, and we’ve been at it for fourteen years, but we’ll make adjustments:
Now, instead of falling back to the American Embassy, Mr. Obama said, the military will be able to maintain operations at Bagram Air Field to the north of Kabul, the main American hub in Afghanistan, and at bases outside Kandahar in the country’s south and Jalalabad in the east. The bases are crucial for counterterrorism operations and for flying drones used by the military and the CIA, which had also argued for keeping troops in Afghanistan to help protect its own assets.
We’ll do better with drones, and now we don’t have to deal with a local nut-case:
President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan also pressed for Mr. Obama to keep more troops in his country. Many in Washington feared an American pullback just when Afghanistan had a leader who, unlike his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, appears willing to partner with the United States and is acutely aware of his country’s need for help from the United States and its NATO allies.
The New York Times’ Peter Baker comments on that:
The one word President Obama did not mention on Thursday was Iraq. Four years ago, he stuck to his plan to pull out of Iraq, only to watch the country collapse back into sectarian strife and a renewed war with Islamic extremists. Facing a similar situation in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama has decided not to follow a similar course.
Whether keeping a residual American force in Iraq would have made a difference is a point of contention, but the president chose not to take a chance this time.
And this time he has a partner:
While not openly drawing lessons from the Iraq withdrawal, Mr. Obama drew an implicit distinction by emphasizing that the new Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, unlike the Baghdad government in 2011, still supported an American military presence and has taken the legal steps to make it possible.
In Iraq, that Maliki fellow would not take those legal steps, or couldn’t, without the Iraqi parliament tossing him out on his ear. Obama would honor the George Bush agreement to get the hell out, damn it! So this is different, or it’s something else:
Stephen J. Hadley, a national security adviser to Mr. Bush… said on Thursday that Mr. Obama presumably wanted to “avoid giving the Republicans another issue” after the setbacks in Iraq.
“Republicans have made a big point of saying that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 is a contributing factor to the chaos in Iraq, and I think from a political standpoint he didn’t want to saddle Hillary Clinton with having to defend a similar decision to pull out in Afghanistan,” he said.
The White House rejected such interpretations. “I can tell you that politics played absolutely no role in the president’s decision-making here,” [Press Secretary Josh] Earnest said.
And there were other reactions:
Security analysts said the new plan may be just enough to preserve the status quo. “Keeping 5,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan with a training and direct action mission may prevent the country from deteriorating as quickly as Iraq did after the U.S. withdrawal in 2011,” said Seth Jones, an Afghanistan specialist at the RAND Corporation. “But it’s unclear whether it will be enough to turn the Afghan ship around.”
Antiwar activists, however, expressed disappointment that Mr. Obama went back on his word, pointing to the recent bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital as an example of the increasing cost of war. Keeping troops for a 15th year, they said, would likely make no more difference than they had during the previous 14 years.
“This is disastrous,” said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and author of “Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror,” a new book on the Islamic State. “The notion that the lesson of Iraq is keeping a military occupation permanently in place is somehow the answer is absolutely the wrong lesson.”
Perhaps so, but in Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf sees the inevitable:
The president’s decision to leave 5,500 troops in Afghanistan at least into the first year of the next president’s term of office was inevitable. The lessons of Iraq and the volatile situation on the ground in Afghanistan dictate it. It was also the right decision. To leave entirely would be to invite chaos, render America’s enormous investment a write-off, and likely leave the country a home to a new generation of violent extremists even more dangerous than the al Qaeda thugs whom America entered Afghanistan to eradicate.
And there has been a misunderstanding:
In reaching this decision, Obama is helping to put to rest one of the most often cited aspects of the Powell Doctrine, the framework for considering American overseas interventions that was named after the former secretary of state. The doctrine traces its roots to Colin Powell’s former boss, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and to the deep desire to avoid future Vietnams that dominated the thinking of American military planners in the wake of that debacle. One of its central precepts is that when America contemplates overseas use of force, an “exit strategy” is developed to avoid the prospect of being bogged down, as in the so-called quagmire of the Indochina War.
It is a natural desire. Protracted, bloody, costly engagements are undesirable on almost every level. Unfortunately, history has shown that in many circumstances avoiding them is unrealistic. In fact, the lesson of the past three-quarters of a century of U.S. overseas military action might be seen as “do not intervene unless you are prepared to remain involved for a long, long time.”
Take a look at the evidence:
What are the notable “successes” of America’s major wars during that period – defeating Germany and Japan? Ensuring the freedom of Korea?
In each case, troops have remained on the ground in those countries for more than half a century. In none of these cases did this mean the United States had to be an imperial power. But it did mean that Washington had to accept that troops served an important stabilizing role that could not be otherwise provided. Needless to say, other longer-term interests were also involved in all these circumstances – particularly, counterbalancing Cold War adversaries. But this justification underscored a common-sense corollary to the “be prepared to stay” doctrine that is experience’s real lesson: Don’t intervene unless your long-term interests warrant long-term involvement.
This altered approach should actually be embraced by more anti-war elements in American society – as well as by those who support a strong military. It eliminates the illusion that “in and out” or “low cost” interventions are really options in any situation where the goal is more than of a very limited, tactical nature. As a consequence, it argues even more forcefully than the Powell Doctrine that involvements be weighed carefully and undertaken infrequently.
This is a matter of knowing what the actual options are, and something more:
Another conclusion, and a lesson that must be particularly bitter for the president, is that the long-term stabilizing role can only be undertaken by a truly capable force. The president has frequently argued that a centerpiece of his plans to extricate America from its involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan was turning such responsibilities over to local militaries. But in both cases, even after huge investments in training and equipping local forces, America has failed to adequately cultivate forces to which the baton can be handed off.
Given the evidence that was at hand when the president made such transfers of responsibility core to his plans for Iraq and Afghanistan – and fighting extremism more broadly – his conclusion that such an approach could work was at best folly. Probably, it was worse than that: bordering on deep intellectual dishonesty. It was an approach based largely on denial and self-deception.
That sort of thing never works:
Now it is clear that it has not only failed – it has done so catastrophically. In fact, it is largely the degree of the failure in Iraq (which, as probably should no longer need to be pointed out, was precipitated by the George W. Bush administration’s deeply misguided intervention in that country) that has obligated the president to leave troops in Afghanistan.
There’s a lesson here:
It is important to note that this does not mean we should never intervene. It means going in with our eyes wide open, knowing what we are getting into.
That seems pretty obvious, now, but then there are the political repercussions of finding that out too late. In the Guardian, Simon Tisdall discusses those:
Barack Obama’s decision to abandon his plan to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by the time he leaves office in January 2017 will be greeted with concern by friends and derision by foes.
Whichever way the White House tries to spin it, Obama’s move directly contradicts his self-congratulatory, evidently premature announcement in the spring last year that he was “turning the page” on almost 15 years of war in Afghanistan. “This year we will bring America’s longest war to a responsible end,” he declared.
If it sounds like a U-turn, looks like a U-turn, and smells like a U-turn, then it’s probably a U-turn. You can almost hear Donald Trump and other Republican would-be Oval office replacements sharpening verbal barbs for the next TV debate.
This looks like a political disaster:
His foreign policy record is already under withering fire from Jeb Bush, who portrays the president as weak and dithering. The narrative includes post-withdrawal disintegration in Iraq (where US troop numbers are rising again), Obama’s alleged lethal carelessness with diplomats’ lives in Libya, and his blindsiding by Russia in Syria.
Add to that a dangerous nuclear deal with Iran (as Republicans and Israel’s government see it) and the apparent impotence in the face of Islamic State and the Afghanistan volte-face looks, to political foes at least, like clinching proof of serial failure by the commander-in-chief.
Obama’s legacy may suffer. But Hillary Clinton’s prospective future as Obama’s successor may be more seriously tainted. As secretary of state in his first term, Clinton spearheaded Afghan policy, including the political reformation that culminated in the sharp-elbowed Hamid Karzai being replaced as president in last year’s elections by the softer-spoken Ashraf Ghani.
Some of this could be her fault:
The absence of any kind of prior peace deal or truce with the Taliban, a signal of diplomatic failure, has ensured that what has actually followed is a resurgence of insurgency. Taliban gains in the south, notably Helmand, were followed by the recent, spectacular fall of Kunduz in the north. Although the Taliban have now been pushed out of the city, their success in seizing it in the first place despite the best efforts of Afghan army troops was sobering in the extreme. Many saw it as a sign of things to come.
The fact that the most memorable US contribution to the battle for Kunduz was the destruction of a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital with the loss of at least 22 lives, none of them insurgents, only emphasized how hapless and haphazard the US mission in Afghanistan has become.
It all went bad:
At the same time, it is hard to see how the decision to keep at least 5,500 American troops in-country for an apparently indefinite period, backed up, as now, with US combat aircraft and CIA drones, will make a significant difference. The remaining troops will be confined, Bosnia-like, to fortified camps at Bagram airfield – the largest US military base in the country – Jalalabad in the east, and Kandahar in the south. Again like in Bosnia in the 1990s, when American commanders appeared obsessed with “force protection” to the exclusion of more engaged roles, the troops will not take part in combat.
“We will continue to undertake only two narrow missions: counter-terrorism and training, advising and assisting our Afghan partners,” an official said. Without a hint of conscious self-parody, the administration said NATO partners fully supported the US move but had not yet offered to match it. Obama shouldn’t hold his breath.
We may be in this alone now, and the Los Angeles Times reports on how Obama is stuck with this:
Obama’s objectives were clearer and more absolute when he ran for office in 2008, saying he would be the president to lead America out of war. But as his tenure moves toward its final year, White House officials had increasingly begun to acknowledge that goal would not be achieved.
“It’s hard to be bold at the end of a presidency,” said Jon Alterman, a Middle East specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “When they campaign, candidates want to be clear, and they want to be different. But after almost seven years in office, presidents know how rarely things turn out the way they planned.”
As in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan had deteriorated by the time Obama inherited it, making the conflict difficult to end, said Gordon Adams, professor emeritus of International Relations at American University. And there’s no evidence that keeping a large U.S. military presence in either country would have brought stability, Adams said.
“But, domestically, presidents get blamed, so, like Bush before him, Obama’s legacy will be tainted by the ‘failure’ to ‘win’ or ‘end,’ these conflicts,” Adams said.
Afghanistan did it again. It really is a graveyard of all sorts, and we’re staying. There’s no other choice.