U.S. Troops Leave Afghanistan: Will History Repeat?

Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama released a statement over the holiday weekend regarding the U.S.’s involvement in Afghanistan. In particular, he addressed military involvement, and the promised removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Many headlines, like CNN’s, say something along the lines of “Obama marks end of combat in Afghanistan.” But while this is true technically, most are more interested in discussing what this end does and doesn’t mean. Some are concerned it means Afghanistan will be left vulnerable. Others point out the fact that American troops probably won’t be making a full exit as soon as expected.

This came as a surprise to nearly no one. This expectation is evidenced by the throng of analysts who have predicted he’d renege on his announced timeline. “The president’s decision this past spring to publicly lay out his timeline for ending American troop involvement on the ground is widely regarded as a mistake in Washington,” wrote Brookings Bruce Riedel, and the reasoning behind that criticism is fairly sound. Why make a series of promises the president has been forced to break, and likely will be forced to break in future?

President Obama prefaced his plans by saying “our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.” The key word there was “responsible,” meaning the withdrawal will be slow, or in other words, incomplete for the moment. He eventually transitions from discussion of democratic changes to Afghanistan and America’s history in the area, to the meat of his announcement, as far as critics will be concerned: “At the invitation of the Afghan government, and to preserve the gains we have made together, the United States — along with our allies and partners — will maintain a limited military presence in Afghanistan to train, advise, and assist Afghan forces and to conduct counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda.”

Iraq and Afghanistan similarities

Obama’s rhetoric on extraction for Afghanistan is very similar to what we hear regarding ISIL and military force in Iraq. There is a similar emphasis on “our friends and allies” as well as the U.S. military’s role being simply to “train, advise, and assist Iraqi Security Forces.” This similar language is meant to accomplish a similar goal: To distance the Obama administration from seeming too militarily involved in the Middle East, and to give Obama some buffer against critics who will point out that he’s gone back on his original plan.

The two examples are tied in another sense, pointed out by Riedel. “Many fear [pulling out of Afghanistan too soon] will lead to a repeat of the Iraq disaster, where the Iraqi army collapsed last summer without U.S. Support and lost Mosul to the Islamic state, forcing a very reluctant Obama to send troops back to Baghdad.”

A historical perspective on withdrawing from conflict countries

One might say that the “conclusion” of America’s war in Afghanistan is hardly an ending at all; that wrapping up military involvement just isn’t what it used to be. But that would be incorrect really, looked at from a historical perspective. Consider the war in Vietnam, which unofficially began in the 1940s — war was never declared on Vietnam officially — and stretched on for decades before the “last troops” were pulled out, then a few years more before the remaining “last troops” were pulled out and the last American deaths occurred in 1975.

Consider Japan, which has U.S. armed forces stationed there to this day — under vastly different diplomatic conditions of course, i.e. military bases with an understanding with Japanese government — but historically the U.S. occupied Japan for some time after World War II had ended. Germany saw similar occupation and slow withdrawal. The point is, this slow, painful untangling from other nation’s political balance has never been simple. It has rarely been quick, timely, or all at once. And while rebranding troop presence in Afghanistan as mission “Resolute Support” isn’t entirely convincing, that doesn’t make it the wrong decision in terms of maintaining security there, nor does it undermine the relationship with NATO in continued efforts on the ground there.

One could argue that the president made a mistake made by many presidents in the past. He committed to a timeline that did not prove possible in its entirety — though the return of 90% of troops, according to the Obama Administration is nothing to scoff at — but history repeats itself; no one should be surprised. In November, he actually increased certain aspects of military ability in Afghanistan, including air support, in order to help account for some of the loss of support in troops.

“Compared to the nearly 180,000 American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan when I took office,” said Obama, “we now have fewer than 15,000 in those countries.” But looking back seven months ago, the President said on May 27, “When I took office, we had nearly 180,000 troops in harm’s way. By the end of this year, we will have less than 10,000.”

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