Ending the Afghanistan War 13 Years Later: Is it Time to Leave?

Source: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

The complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 was the fruition of one of the most important building blocks of President Barack Obama’s extremely successful 2008 campaign. “As a candidate for President, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end — for the sake of our national security and to strengthen American leadership around the world,” he boasted in an October 2011 statement. “After taking office, I announced a new strategy that would end our combat mission in Iraq and remove all of our troops by the end of 2011. So today, I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.” Critics of the president’s foreign policy strategy — which is based on the concept “don’t do stupid shit” — claim Obama’s decision to leave Iraq showed naivety, and that he traded hard-won stability in the country for a dream that the United States diminish its global footprint. Those same critics found vindication when the Islamic State’s rise to power forced the Obama administration to become involved once again in the stability and future of Iraq.

The rise of ISIL — the militant terrorist group also know as the Islamic State — has not only presented a significant foreign policy quandary for the president, but it provides a new lens through which to analyze the Obama administration’s schedule for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

Political turmoil in Iraq has cast an ominous shadow over Obama’s planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. When cities in northern Iraq began falling to the terrorist organization earlier this year, the Obama administration began fielding questions about whether the insurgency had prompted a reassessment of the United States’ scheduled exit; and, when Obama decided the United States would bomb ISIL positions in early September, reporters asked the president in a subsequent press briefing what the instability in Iraq meant for Afghanistan. Obama was quick to highlight the differences between the politics of the two countries, defiant that mistakes made in Iraq would not be repeated in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has always been quite different from Iraq, but still there are a number of parallels that the Obama administration should not ignore. Withdrawal from Afghanistan has been framed using the exact same language as the exit from Iraq. Both were based on the idea that it was more than time to end the dragging conflicts his administration inherited. The more worrisome similarity is the administration’s seeming desire to pullout troops even if a planned exit threatens peace in the region and undermines the stability created by the U.S. military presence.

The timeline for withdrawal, codified by the security agreement inked in late September between the Obama administration, NATO, and new Afghan president Ashraf Ghani on his first day in office, will leave approximately 12,500 foreign troops in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, most of which will be American. Monday, October 27, saw the last U.S. Marines depart from Camp Leatherneck — which, together with the British camp Bastion, was one of the most crucial bases of the fight against the Taliban. Before it was formally handed over to Afghan forces on Sunday, a major milestone in the conclusion of the war in Afghanistan, the base served as a logistical center and headquarters. At one time Camp Leatherneck housed 40,000 U.S. troops, and it was the last operational base the Marines oversaw in Afghanistan. Camp Leatherneck also carries special importance in the history of Operation Enduring Freedom because it sits in Helmand province, a region in southwestern Afghanistan that saw some of the bloodiest fighting in the 13 years of war. Afghan soldiers and police are still fighting the Taliban in Helmand, where insurgents have fought hard to regain control of territory that was once their stronghold. “I am cautiously optimistic that they will be able to sustain themselves,” Marine Corps Brigadier  General Daniel Yoo — the commander of allied forces in Helmand and in the adjacent province of Nimroz — told The Wall Street Journal. But hundreds of government troops and civilians have been killed already, while Afghan security forces expect to be cut from 350,000 to around 228,000 by 2018.

Helmand is also home of vast opium fields, which still serve as an important source of income for the Taliban. Last year, opium poppy cultivation swelled to cover more than a half-million acres in Afghanistan, supplying more than 80% of the world’s illicit opium. And that represents a failure for the United States; since the 2001 invasion, the U.S. has spent more than $7.6 billion to eradicate opium fields and create incentives for farmers to grow alternative crops.

Plans for drawing down U.S. military presence in Afghanistan began to coalesce as Iraq began to fall apart. During a speech he made in late May from the Rose Garden of the White House, Obama, now in his sixth year as president, announced that all but about 12,500 allied troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of this year, meaning the combat mission will be effectively over. And by the end of 2016, just before he leaves office, the U.S. “military will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component, just as we’ve done in Iraq,” he explained. During the commencement speech Obama gave the following day at the United States Military Academy at West Point, he fashioned the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan as proof his administration has led the United States into the “next phase” of war. When last he spoke at West Point in December 2009, the Afghanistan surge of troops was just beginning, and so the vast difference between these two moments in history are by no means without poignancy. For the graduating cadets in the audience, his announcement meant they would be the “first class since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.” For the country, it means the end of the longest war in United States history.

Yet, his speech drew the same criticisms as the right has long lobbed at his foreign policy agenda.

Thirteen years have passed since United States forces invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks with the orders to oust the Taliban, who had given al Qaeda safe haven. Combat operations dragged on much longer than many Americans expected; cost much more than the Bush administration projected; and, the long years of the “War on Terror” left 2,184 U.S. casualties and 19,000 soldiers wounded. In the years of President Barack Obama’s presidency, Afghanistan has taken on the lamentable designation as the longest war in United States history. And 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 the 2008 presidential candidate. 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 the criticism that his foreign policy is “weak and indecisive,” as Wisconsin Representative and 2008 Republican Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan said earlier this year.

Ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have undeniably shaped Obama’s presidency and his legacy — though not in the way he intended. Running for office in 2008, under the banner of hope and change, Obama struck a chord with the war-weary American public — who increasingly saw intervention in Iraq as failure and increasingly worried about the costs of interventionism. His win was historic; not just because he became the nation’s first African-American president, but because voter turnout hit a 40-year high, with Obama winning the largest share of white support of any Democrat in a two-man race since 1976, especially among young voters. He took that victory as a mandate for reshaping America’s role in the world. Namely, his intention — as he explained in his policy-setting speech in May — was not to ignore that the United States has an “interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond” its borders, but to recognize that not “every problem has a military solution.” Yet, the fact remains that Iraq is still a problem, and some experts believe Afghanistan could become a problem as well.

To some degree, the possible dangers of pulling out of Afghanistan mirror those issues that have created political tumult and allowed for a violent insurgency in Iraq. Some lawmakers, military analysts and former soldiers have castigated both the White House and NATO for failing to understand tribal conflicts. For example, former British Captain Mike Martin explained in his book, An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, that the allied forces had misinterpreted old conflicts over land or other resources for ideological insurgency. And by associating every armed group with the Taliban, the allies give momentum to the insurgency, which is far from deflated. Since Ghani took office at the end of September, suicide bombers, roadside bombs, and rocket attacks on the Afghan capital of Kabul have increased. And, after an October 1 attack, the Taliban told the AFP that the bombing was a message to Ghani’s government, a “stooge” government that signed a “slave pact,” their term for the American-brokered agreement between the president and election rival Abdullah Abdullah. Ghani, in turn, has invited the Taliban to peace talks, which is a significant reversal from a decade ago when the group was nearly decimated.

That peace talks are necessary is evidence that stability is tenuous. As former Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman wrote in an opinion piece for The Washington Post, “the Obama administration’s plan for Afghanistan significantly raises the risk that al-Qaeda and its affiliates will be able to regenerate in the region where the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were plotted, with dangerous implications for the security of the United States and its allies.” Lieberman argued that the efforts the United States has made to degrade the terrorist threat in Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan in recent years will be rolled back unless the U.S. military remains involved. “That will be very difficult in the absence of a military presence on the ground in Afghanistan — just as we have seen in Iraq, where al-Qaeda-linked networks were decimated during the 2007-08 surge, only to return with a vengeance after U.S. troops left in late 2011.”

Even while the results of Afghanistan’s presidential election were disputed, Obama told advisers that pulling out American troops would make no difference if the country cannot overcome its political divides, or in other words, withdrawal is to proceed as scheduled. The agreement inked between Ghani and Abdullah ended (at least temporarily) fears that a cabal of Afghan government officials, with ties to the country’s security forces, would seize power and install its own interim government. Still, the tensions between Ghani and Abdullah showcased Afghanistan’s ethnic strife, which has parallels to the sectarian rifts in Iraq that have hurt the formation of a stable government and gave momentum to ISIL.

“I predicted what was going to happen in Iraq,” Arizona’s Republican Senator John McCain said on CNN in early August. “I’m predicting to you now that if we pull everybody out of Afghanistan, not based on conditions, you’ll see that same movie again in Afghanistan.” Former members of the Obama administration have echoed that sentiment. “The entire Afghanistan strategy is based on Iraq,” former State Department official Vali R. Nasr, who worked on Afghanistan and Pakistan policy, told The New York Times. “This argument that we can stand up a military to do what we ourselves can’t do hasn’t proven out in Iraq.”

And even as the bombing campaign has spread for ISIL locations in Iraq to Syria, the president has not acknowledged that leaving Iraq was a mistake.

Of course, the primary difference between the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan is the bilateral security agreement (also known as the Status of Forces Agreement) that will allow 9,800 Americans and at least 2,000 NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan after the combat mission formally ends on December 31. Most of those troops will train and assist the still-weak security forces. By comparison, Iraq’s former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, would not sign such an agreement, because of the strong resentment the Iraqi people felt for U.S. troops following such incidents as the Blackwater Baghdad shooting and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse. It is because that agreement — -which would have given U.S. troops legal immunity — fell through that Obama pulled all troops instead of leaving the 10,000-strong force he had planned. And that is why the president argues withdrawal was not a mistake.

More From Politics Cheat Sheet:

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS