Nearly twelve and a half years have passed since United States forces invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Combat operations dragged on much longer than many Americans expected; cost much more than the Bush administration projected; and, the long years of conflict left 2,184 U.S. casualties and 19,000 soldiers wounded. During President Barack Obama’s presidency, Afghanistan took on the lamentable designation as the longest war in United States history. While it was a war not started by his administration, Afghanistan never was able to become the symbol that Obama hoped it would be as a presidential candidate in 2008. His rhetoric during that campaign promised a decisive change in policy that would clean up the mess created by his predecessor and allow America to regain its prestige in the world. But the president’s foreign policy agenda has made only modest steps toward those goals, leaving Obama open to criticism.
Indeed, the war in Afghanistan has entered its final days. Obama, now in the sixth year of his presidency, announced in a Tuesday speech, made from the White House Rose Garden, that U.S. combat troops would be completely out of Afghanistan by 2016 — just before he leaves office. By the end of this year, U.S. presence in the country will have been reduced from the 32,800 troops now stationed there to 9,800, and the combat mission will effectively be over. That may not be enough to satisfy the president’s critics, who will point to the promise to have all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this year that he made during the 2012 presidential campaign. But, while the end may be slowly approaching, Afghanistan has not developed into a strong pillar of what was to be Obama’s unique approach to foreign policy, largely because of the immensity the ongoing conflict presented.
“I think Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them,” Obama said. That statement is easy to read as an acknowledgment that changing the role of the United States in global affairs has been, and will be, no easy task. However, it was more an acknowledgement that recent wars are not decisively ended “through signing ceremonies.” From that point, he built an argument for why the United States should leave a much smaller footprint on its foreign entanglements. “Decisive blows against our adversaries are necessary,” but so too are “transitions to elected governments” and the creation of security forces able to “take the lead and ultimately full responsibility,” he noted. That will allow the United States to “secure our interests and help give the Afghans a chance, an opportunity to seek a long, overdue, and hard-earned peace.” But, at the same time, he said the American people must recognize that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one.”
Achieving a balance between the need to protect U.S. interests and the responsibility of the Afghan government to decide its country’s future ushers in a “new chapter in American foreign policy,” according to Obama. With troops home, the United States will be able “to redirect some of the resources saved by ending these wars to respond more nimbly to the changing threat of terrorism, while addressing a broader set of priorities around the globe.”