America’s longest war is going to get a little longer.
President Obama’s announcement Thursday that he will leave 5,500 United States troops in Afghanistan after he departs the White House in 2017 violates one of the president’s chief campaign pledges from 2008.
The Taliban is reenergized and increasingly willing to take its long fight to Afghanistan’s urban centers, with Afghan security forces still unable to defend villages and now cities from attack. Now, with the self-proclaimed Islamic State beginning to take chunks of Afghan territory, Mr. Obama has essentially decided between two unpalatable options.
Better to be tagged with a policy reversal, the decision says. The alternative is to go down in the history books as having lost the war that candidate Obama also said was the essential war – as opposed to the one in Iraq – that America was fighting in its national security interests.
“I will not allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven to attack our country again,” Obama said, underscoring how Afghanistan and the region remain a national security concern 14 years after the 9/11 attacks – despite a war that has claimed more than 2,000 American military lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.
In announcing his decision to leave nearly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan next year before turning over a force of just over 5,000 there to the next president, Obama insisted he was not “disappointed” that he had to reverse plans to leave only a small embassy protection force in the country by the time he left office.
The president tried to put a positive spin on the decision – and to obliquely contrast the situation with the one in Iraq in 2011, when he made the controversial decision to pull out all US troops. He said an extension of the US force in Afghanistan was requested by the government in Kabul, was made after the country successfully completed its first democratic transition, and reflected solid but incomplete progress by Afghan security forces.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters following the president’s statement that the decision to extend the current force and then keep 5,500 in place in 2017 reflected Obama’s assessment that the mission has been successful. “The fact the president wants to extend the mission is actually an indication it’s working,” he said.
But Obama also suggested that the goal of training a military and police force capable of defending the country had not been met. “Afghan security forces are still not as strong as they need to be,” he said, adding that Afghanistan’s “security situation is still very fragile, and there is risk of reversal in some areas.”
The president only mentioned the Islamic State once in his statement, saying, “We’ve seen the emergence of an ISIL presence,” using an acronym for the militant group. But with the US engaged in an air campaign targeting the group in Syria and Iraq, the expansion of the Islamic State into Afghanistan this summer was clearly a factor in the president’s decision.
Obama said the force remaining in Afghanistan will keep to the same “narrow” two-part mission, which is to train and assist the Afghan security forces, and to conduct counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and the region.
But even as the administration claims success in the decade-plus effort to deteriorate what it calls “core Al Qaeda,” the second prong of the mission – the counter-terrorism aspect – could increasingly be directed at IS if the group continues to make headway in Afghanistan.
Obama’s decision to make what has been dubbed the “long war” even longer disappointed some analysts who had hoped the president would resist advisers’ recommendations to extend the US presence.
“As the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, calls have increased for President Obama to reconsider a complete US troop withdrawal this year. The president seems to be listening to that chorus,” says Michael Desch, a professor of political science and expert in US military engagements at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
Blasting what he calls the “permanent commitment crowd” for failing to explain how a force of 5,000 American soldiers will be able to accomplish what hundreds of thousands could not over 14 years, Professor Desch says that “after 14 years and lots of American blood and treasure … it no longer makes sense to throw good money (and lives) after bad in this failed state.”
But for others, Obama’s decision was the right one in what, like it or not they say, is an extended fight with terrorism.
“The president made a very tough but correct decision,” says Charles Dunlap, a law professor and executive director of Duke University’s Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security in Durham, N.C. Extending the US force “will be a psychological boost to the Afghans while at the same time sending a message to the Taliban, ISIS, and other terrorist groups that they cannot simply wait out the US.”