President Obama reneged on a 2008 campaign promise when he announced Thursday that US forces would remain in Afghanistan into 2017 and therefore beyond his term of office.
The new plan calls for about 5,500 American troops to still be on the ground as a new US president is sworn in.
No doubt the President would have liked to have fulfilled his promise and made it part of his legacy. But instead he has had to yield to new facts on the ground.
Comparisons with Iraq shouldn’t be overdrawn, but it’s clear that the disintegration of that country after US forces exited – and the need for the US to return – must have weighed in Mr. Obama’s decision.
More recently, the temporary fall of the Afghan provincial capital of Kunduz to Taliban forces showed how just how weak the Afghan government still is – and the importance that US air power played in helping to retake the city.
Kunduz also served as a reminder of what a return to Taliban rule would mean. Women there who were working to improve conditions for other women and girls in the city had to flee for their lives. The Taliban invaders called Afghan women working outside the home as “immoral” while threatening them and their families.
The US presence in Afghanistan has permitted girls to go to school and new schools to be built, and allowed women to take responsible roles in government and in nongovernmental organizations. All this risks being lost if the Taliban were to resume control.
Obama has often expressed his opposition to being drawn into “endless wars” abroad. Whoever follows him will now be the third US president to command troops in Afghanistan.
But by leaving a significant force in place there, whether it is 5,500 or some other number, the President actually gives his successor more flexibility: A future administration will not need to explain the need to order a reentry of US troops.
The decision also lets the US continue its mission of training Afghan forces while carrying out air and ground missions against terrorists such as the Islamic State who seek to use the country as a base.
Even with this continuing commitment the number of US troops will be a fraction of the 100,000 there in 2011, the high-water mark of US involvement.
The decision to keep Americans soldiers on a foreign battlefield instead of bringing them home is never an easy one for any US president. Mr. Obama has made his call. Now Americans need to continue their support for these troops through their actions and their prayers.