When candidate Barack Obama laid out his vision for Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008, he promised not to get drawn into an “endless war.” Now, as his presidency comes to an end, some military experts are saying that that calculus has changed.
American troops are still in Afghanistan and will be at least until the end of 2017. Meanwhile, Iraq is struggling to cope with the Islamic State, and the United States is steadily increasing the number of military advisers there.
In his final appearance before departing as the top commander of American forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell told Congress that perhaps the US should look on its presence there as “a generational thing.”
Given the propensity of commanders to keep advising the US to stay in Afghanistan, as well as the ramping up of forces in Iraq, policy experts are beginning to ask whether it might be time to simply accept that US forces will be in these countries for as long as the host governments will have them.
If so, they add, perhaps the US needs a new terror-era model of “staying behind” that is less than Okinawa or cold war-era Germany, but more than full withdrawal.
The concept is a controversial one. But history shows that the domestic political cost of such a move might be less than imagined. Post-cold war bases in Japan and Germany were unpopular but accepted largely because there was bipartisan agreement on the need for them, historians say.
The question is what the US wants to accomplish, says Richard Lacquement Jr., dean of the School of Strategic Landpower at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
If the goal is the social transformation of the countries into reliable partners like Japan or Germany, that could take decades – and might never work, he says.
But if the goal is to deny terror groups territory from which they can plot attacks on the American homeland, several thousand troops permanently stationed in hot spots might be worth consideration, he and others say.
In his comments to Congress, General Campbell said he particularly appreciated having the large US bases around Afghanistan because “it gave us the opportunity to provide flexibility in options for future leadership.”
Last year, President Obama heeded Campbell’s military advice and held off on withdrawal plans. Troop levels in Afghanistan are staying steady at nearly 10,000 in 2016, rather than drawing down to 5,500, as was planned.
That 5,500 is still the ostensible goal for January 2017, but it is an open question whether Obama will insist on it over the advice of his military commanders.
The recent discovery of a 30-square-mile terrorist training camp in southern Afghanistan – which came as a “complete surprise,” one lawmaker said – illustrates the need for maintaining some presence in Afghanistan, Campbell suggested.
As the US has drawn down from 852 installations to 20, it is harder to prevent such training camps, he said. “As we downsize, we lose sensors, we lose force out in other regions of Afghanistan to be able to detect that.”
Yet the need for such sensors is, if anything, increasing, he added. If Al Qaeda is “Windows 1.0” then the Islamic State is “Windows 7.0.” And this “has made a difference on the battlefield,” he warned. “They’ve continued to grow.”
The emergence of the Islamic State in the Middle East and, increasingly, Afghanistan could serve as a way to make a case to the American public.
Polls show a conflicted American public. A 2015 Gallup poll found that 54 percent of American said military action in Afghanistan was a mistake.
But a Quinnipiac poll from a year earlier found ambivalence about when troops should be withdrawn. Some 26 percent said Obama was withdrawing them too quickly, 20 percent said too slowly, and 46 percent said just right.
Lessons from history
History shows the same patterns.
After World War II, Americans wanted to get their troops home from Europe, pronto. “At the time, there was not strong support for keeping US forces in Europe. There was a great desire to ‘bring our boys home,’ ” says John Deni, professor of security studies at the US Army War College.
So there was a “nosedive” in US force presence in May 1945. “There was no thought of a long-term presence in Europe,” says Dr. Deni, who served as a senior political adviser for US commanders in Europe.
It wasn’t until the early 1950s that the US shipped troops back to Germany in force. Concerned that the Korean War was a Soviet diversion, the US sent more soldiers to Germany than it did to Korea.
After the Korean War ended with an armistice in 1953, the US left 75,000 US forces on the ground – a number that rose to a quarter million at the height of the cold war.
Through the 1960s, periodic shelling and raids by North Korean forces led to US deaths in the double digits some years. “We had Americans in Korea killed in the ’60s pretty regularly,” says Dr. Lacquement.
But it wasn’t until political unity fractured during the Vietnam War that public opinion turned. “When public support for Vietnam broke down, it had nothing to do with casualties.” Instead, he says, “it was when the elite no longer agreed about why we were there, and whether we should be there.”
That's because The vast majority of Americans have never been outside the United States. “So they tend to defer to their political leaders as experts, as people who have paid more attention to the outside world," he adds.
“The level of casualties is not what drives popular support. It’s whether there is consensus among leadership that the costs are worth it.”
Would a more permanent presence in Iraq or Afghanistan be “worth it?”
Before US forces left Iraq, “we didn’t see the destabilization that has now characterized the region,” says Jerry Hendrix, a former Navy officer who is now director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.
Some suggest that, as the US has withdrawn from the Middle East, countries there have had to assert themselves more aggressively to fill the void. Foreign outposts can be one way of “making sure your allies know you’re committed to them,” says Richard Kohn, former chief historian of the Air Force and now a professor emeritus at Duke University.
But the goals need to be clear.
Is the intent to establish a deep and long-term relationship? Not necessarily.
“Most folks look at a place like Afghanistan and say, ‘What vital interest do we have in maintaining forces there?’ I think the answer is, ‘Very little,’ ” says Deni of the Army War College.
While it is important to make sure Al Qaeda doesn’t have a safe haven, “Do you need tens of thousands of soldiers there to do that? Probably not.”
A counter to ISIS
But there is a need, say others.
“To a degree, I’d like to remain there to make sure that an ISIS or Taliban or Al Qaeda-like entity doesn’t gain control over that very central territory,” says Mr. Hendrix of the Center for a New American Security. “It’s the crossroads of high Asia, and it’s going to remain strategic.”
He envisions a rotational force of between 3,500 and 5,500 soldiers. “That’s probably your best bet, if the nation wants to commit to that,” Hendrix says.
Such a force would not be transformative within Afghanistan. In Japan, Okinawa helped overcome “a major cultural divide” between Americans and Japanese, despite recent high-profile cases of soldiers committing crimes. After World War II, Japanese “are told we’re horrible and we’re going to kill them all,” the War College’s Lacquement says.
Yet “little by little, interaction with Americans disarms them,” he adds. “Exposure to Americans went a long way.”
In Afghanistan, Americans troops are largely restricted to bases, where they don’t interact with the local population. While it helps decrease the chances that US forces will be attacked, Lacquement says, “It also limits a lot of our positives in a great cultural divide by being restricted.”
Still, he sees value in such an arrangement.
With relatively low-level presence and engagement, the US could keep terrorist groups from “developing base areas from which they could do something,” then “in that regard you can say we’ve been successful, in that [terrorist groups] have lower-level density.”