Obama is passing the buck – and it’s a big one – by keeping troops in Afghanistan
by George Petrolekas
The Globe and Mail
October 16, 2015
Haunted by criticism that the premature withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq led to the rise of the Islamic State and the subsequent collapse of the Iraqi security forces, President Barack Obama has been forced to reconsider his promises, an illustration that realities on the ground impact the best of intents.
As a consequence, the President’s previous plan to only have 1,000 US troops in Kabul by year’s end has changed: He announced he’ll keep just short of 10,000 through most of 2016 at bases in Kabul, Bagram, Kandahar and Jalalabad.
Let’s remember 2008: A new hope-filled and optimistic President Obama promised his war-weary nation that he would end America’s foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and close the chapter on the global “war on terror” by closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
Today, in Obama’s seventh year in office, Guantanamo remains open with 114 prisoners caught in a legal twilight zone where Congress forbids their transfer to American soil, yet are considered too dangerous to release but are not actually facing any charges. Many of these prisoners were seized in Afghanistan.
Late last year after close to 14 years of low-level war, which saw U.S. strategy in the conflict change four times (from rebuilding with an Afghan Marshall Plan, combatting an insurgency, a surge and then an abandonment of development to focus solely on the training of an Afghan Army ), the U.S. in conjunction with NATO convinced themselves that the Afghan Army was well enough trained and equipped to defend the state.
However, since April of this year, Afghanistan appears to be a barely contained conflict now complicated by the emergence of the Islamic State in addition to a resurgent Taliban.
Seven provinces have seen districts overtaken by Taliban or Islamic State fighters, the most significant being the seizure of Kunduz for close to a two-week period recently. The difficulties that U.S.-supported Afghan forces face were laid bare by the tragic attack on a Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders)-staffed hospital in the city.
The decision to keep troops in Afghanistan through 2016 is a tacit admission that the Afghan Army and the police simply cannot protect the country on their own and especially without financial and training assistance and U.S. air support.
It is difficult to characterize this policy reversal as either good or bad. The force level that will be retained may only be enough to keep the lid on the pressure cooker, it does not eliminate the Taliban or the Islamic State in Afghanistan and at best contains it. Yet not having kept a presence virtually assured that Afghanistan would become another vacuum with wider regional effects.
The White House has tried to thread the needle by declaring that U.S. combat is over and remaining forces would only engage in counterterrorism, training and assisting Afghan partners, but the truth is Afghanistan has become another location where the U.S. is fighting, with air strikes and raids, with no strategic end in sight.
By only committing to keeping forces to the end of 2016, President Obama has in essence passed the buck to his successor to solve.
George Petrolekas is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He has served in Bosnia and Afghanistan and has been an adviser to senior NATO commanders.