By Kevin Enochs
Perhaps the most telling moment of President Obama’s statement on slowing the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan came in the early moments of his press availability. “This isn’t the first time those adjustments have been made. This probably won’t be the last.” He went on to say, “I suspect that we will continue to evaluate this going forward, as will the next president.”
With that statement, Obama admitted the problem of Afghanistan will last beyond his presidency. He insisted that he isn’t disappointed at his decision, and said he still does not believe in what he called ‘endless war.’ Obama tried to make the point that the “cessation of our combat role has not changed.” But 14 years on, he also acknowledged that Afghanistan remains a very dangerous place, where 25 U.S. troops have died this year, in the longest military engagement in U.S. history.
The decision to keep troops engaged, the president said, was to provide continued support and training to Afghan troops, who Obama said are not strong enough to stand on their own. “If they were to fail,” he said, “it would endanger the security of us all.”
Failure, according to the president, would be an Afghanistan that can “be used as a safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again.” To that end, Obama reiterated many times in his speech that the U.S. mission will be confined to ‘training afghan forces and supporting counter terrorism operations against the remnants of Al Qaeda.” It is unclear to what extent “supporting counter terrorism operations” is different from combat but we can expect other administration officials to thread that needle of explanation.
What is of greater concern to those who have kept a close eye on Afghanistan, and what certainly must concern U.S. officials, is what progress has actually been made in this fourteen year war. Certainly Al Qaeda has been denuded, and Osama Bin Laden, as Obama said ‘received justice.’ Yet, late last month, the Taliban militia roared into Kunduz, holding the strategic city for 14 days.
According to news reports, they wreaked havoc, destroying office buildings, declaring Sharia law, hunted down opponents, and releasing Taliban sympathizers from jail. And in the midst of all the chaos, an errant U.S. attack ended up killing 22 civilians at a local hospital run by the French charity Doctors Without Borders. The city is now back under control of government forces, but the inability of local Afghani troops to eject the militants without American military support was thrown in stark contrast
If the administration’s goal is to ensure a terrorist free Afghanistan, it is unclear how keeping 5-thousand plus troops in Afghanistan will accomplish that.
What is clear is that Afghanistan safely retains its image as an intractable problem. As Mike Malloy so cogently put it, Afghanistan is a place “where empires go to die.”
The president now finds himself standing firmly in the shoes of his predecessor, George W. Bush. In September of 2013, Obama made this comment at a G-20 summit in Russia: “I was elected to end wars, not start them.”
It now looks like the next President of the United States will be saying the same.