When President Obama announced this week that he would leave just over 5,000 US troops in Afghanistan when he leaves office – and contrary to his longtime pledge – the White House said the decision reflected a positive assessment of trends in America’s longest war.
“The fact the president wants to extend the mission is actually an indication it’s working,” said Josh Earnest, Mr. Obama’s spokesman.
Was that pure spin, or is the two-part mission in Afghanistan – to train and advise Afghan security forces, and to carry out counterterrorism operations – actually “working”?
The reality is some of both, say some analysts of the 14-year US effort in Afghanistan.
US-trained Afghan security forces are facing a reinvigorated Taliban and not always faring well. Casualties among Afghan forces shot up this year.
But on the other hand, Afghan forces are widely demonstrating a will to fight, many close observers say, and some elite units in particular are pushing the enemy back – especially when backed by US air strikes and other support.
“No doubt there’s some spin to what [the White House] is saying, but it’s also true the Afghan forces are fighting hard, and there’s a chance that with our continued support they can keep fending off the Taliban,” says Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow and expert in US-South Asia relations at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
“Are the Afghans and the Afghan Security Forces facing a major challenge, is the situation in peril in Afghanistan? Yes,” she says. “But there’s also a kernel of truth in [the White House] words. With a continued US commitment,” she adds, “the situation in Afghanistan is not hopeless.”
Other analysts zeroed in on Mr. Obama’s plans to approximately halve the 9,800 troops now in Afghanistan to 5,500 by the time he leaves office, concluding that if anything is “working” in the current mission, it won’t be able to continue such success with half the number of American soldiers.
“The president’s 5,500 figure may be a way to leave office before the cost of a failed approach becomes fully clear, but it is not a strategy,” says Anthony Cordesman, a national security and US military strategy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. In a commentary on the CSIS website, Dr. Cordesman says “The new number is almost certainly too low to be effective.”
Most reports on Obama’s decision announced Thursday cited the increased violence Afghanistan faced this summer and in particular the Taliban’s recent takeover (if only temporary) of the eastern city of Kunduz as the central factors explaining Obama’s about-face on a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of his presidency.
And no doubt those factors were critical. Obama himself said Afghanistan remains “very fragile.”
But there are also other factors, some of which Obama and Mr. Ernest cited or alluded to, that are on the “positive” side of the ledger and which suggest a measure of success in Afghanistan that Obama decided make a continued US presence worthwhile.
Among those are the country’s first completed (though not trouble-free) democratic transition of political power, and the standing up of a large army generally free of the kinds of ethnic and sectarian tensions that have divided the Iraqi military and left it deeply ineffective in the face of much less numerous Islamic State militants.
Indeed, comparisons between Iraq and Afghanistan and the conditions the US has faced in each seemed to underpin Obama’s reasoning for keeping US troops in Afghanistan – even if those comparisons remained unspoken.
Obama pointedly stated for example that he was extending the US mission in Afghanistan at the request of the government of President Ashraf Ghani – in contrast, he seemed to want to say, with the situation in Iraq in 2011, when the US failed to reach a deal with the government in Baghdad to keep thousands of US troops there.
The administration’s assessment that the mission in Afghanistan is “working” seems to refer primarily to the “train and assist” part of the two-prong effort, but Obama also cited the positives in having a continued counterterrorism presence in Afghanistan.
Obama said, for example, that new anti-militant efforts in neighboring Pakistan have had the effect of pushing some Al Qaeda terrorists across the border back into Afghanistan. The counterterrorism mission will allow the US to keep better watch on the evolving terrorist threat in the region, Obama said.
Obama only mentioned the self-proclaimed Islamic State once on his statement, but the foothold the expanding extremist group has established in Afghanistan undoubtedly made keeping a counterterrorism mission in the country all the more vital, experts say.
“The presence of ISIS in eastern Afghanistan is another good reason for [Obama’s] decision and for us to want to continue what we’re doing there,” Ms. Curtis says.
What neither Obama nor administration officials explained in announcing the president’s decision is how, if the mission carried out by about 10,000 US soldiers is “working,” a number roughly half that will be the right one to maintain the training and counterterrorism efforts.
Like CSIS’s Cordesman, Curtis says the reduced number probably isn’t enough – but reflects instead Obama’s desire to go out as the president who ended two wars.
With the 5,500 figure, Obama is “holding on to the last shred of trying to be perceived as the president who wound down America’s wars,” Curtis says.
Obama’s assertion in his statement that he will “continue to assess” conditions in Afghanistan over the coming year suggests to Curtis that the president could change the numbers again.
“But even if he decides on keeping more than the 5,500” now slated to be there through 2017, “he’ll still want to be the president who moved in a downward trajectory,” she says.
It’s also likely that any further revision upward in the numbers of troops to remain in Afghanistan will be explained as a sign that the US mission there is working.