October 16, 2015

What Does Obama Aim to Accomplish in Afghanistan?

He’s putting American lives on the line for a war he’s tired of fighting.

On Thursday, Barack Obama announced a major revision to his plan to withdraw virtually all American troops from Afghanistan by the end of his presidency. Instead, he will keep 5,500 troops there into 2017 and maintain the current force of 9,800 through “most of 2016.” But for a man who clearly doesn’t believe in American leadership in the world or defending our interests abroad, what does he intend to accomplish by leaving our men and women in harm’s way?

If the U.S. has interests in securing victory in Afghanistan — and it does — Obama’s move is at least a step back in the right direction. It appears he at least (partially) listened to his generals, which might be a first. Obama is not known for being persuaded by evidence. And perhaps he learned a little something from his disastrous choices in Iraq.

On the other hand, if his move is as half-hearted as we think it is, he’s putting American lives on the line in a political concession meant to leave the problem for the next president. Remember that Obama’s primary concern is always himself, and the only reason for any of his decisions is his own political benefit.

“As you are all well aware,” he declared, “I do not support the idea of endless war.” Again, he offers the false choice between his way or “endless war.” There are other options.

After nearly seven years of his determination to “end the war responsibly,” even he admits Afghanistan has slid into Iraq-like chaos. “Afghan forces are still not as strong as they need to be,” he said Thursday. “Meanwhile, the Taliban has made gains, particularly in rural areas, and can still launch deadly attacks in cities, including Kabul.”

It’s not only the Taliban. The Washington Post reports, “al-Qaeda appears to have staked out new ground in Afghanistan, far from the group’s mountain enclaves to the northeast.” And here we thought Obama had al-Qaida “on the run.”

In fact, as the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Kagan writes, “There was no meaningful al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan when Barack Obama took office. There will likely be al Qaeda strategic bases there when he leaves. That is failure by any standard.”

Given all of that, let’s review some of Obama’s previous statements on Afghanistan.

In 2008, he said, “Our troops and our NATO allies are performing heroically in Afghanistan, but I have argued for years that we lack the resources to finish the job because of our commitment to Iraq. … And that’s why, as president, I will make the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win.”

Yet even in his 2009 announcement of a surge in Afghanistan, Obama promised a departure date — hardly a sign of it being a “top priority” or the right message for a “war that we have to win.”

He abandoned Iraq to the Islamic State, but his focus on Afghanistan clearly didn’t work. And the words “win” or “victory” did not appear in his remarks yesterday.

In 2011, he was still bent on withdrawal, all while declaring success. “We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength,” he said. “[W]e take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding. … These long wars will come to a responsible end.”

And in December 2014, he echoed that boast: “Our combat mission in Afghanistan will be over this month, and our war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end.”

He did, in Thursday’s announcement, begin by repeating his “responsible end” rhetoric. He also promised our men and women in uniform, “I do not send you into harm’s way lightly.” We wish we could believe that.

Now that he has announced what is little more than a policy of treading water, a “responsible end” will come from the next administration — which we hope is one willing to take up the mantle of American leadership, knowing full well it holds the well-being of soldiers and the nation in its hands.

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