Above Photo: A problem inherited from the last administration is clearly going to be passed on to the next one. Waqif Nasirahmad/Demotix/Corbis
President Obama on Thursday proclaimed to be against endless wars, even as he announced that the US will continue to wage one.
“I’ve decided to maintain our current posture of 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through most of next year,” Obama said at a press conference where he also reversed his prior decision to have only military presence at the United States’ embassy by 2016. “I believe this mission is vital to our national security interests in preventing terrorist attacks against our citizens and our nation,” Obama said. But, he added, “I do not support the idea of endless war.”
When Barack Obama took over the administration of the Afghanistan war – the “good” war, compared to the folly of Iraq – staying the course was never supposed to be the policy. In his first presidential campaign, Obama vowed to put more troops on the ground to beef up the fight and thereby end the conflict entirely. Once in office, Obama initially ordered the troop count to increase to around 100,000. Then, despite a flurry of leaks about military brass wanting to keep a larger presence there, Obama brought the “surge” of soldiers home by the autumn of 2012. As the Afghanistan surge wound down, Obama made clear his objective was to end the war: “By the end of next year,” Obama said in early 2013, “America’s war in Afghanistan will be over.” Obama followed through by declaring an end to “combat operations” at the end of 2014.
Yet nearly 10,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan as trainers in 2015, often on the ground, and in combat roles, carrying out special operations raids against targets and supporting drone assassinations. Those 10,000 troops will now stay in the country for most of Obama’s remaining days in office – and perhaps beyond them.
With Afghanistan still far from any semblance of security, it’s hard to see how extending the longest war in American history – now slated to go on more than a decade and a half – is anything but endless war. Despite being pushed out of some its strongholds, the Taliban remains a violent force to be reckoned with. Late last month, the insurgency managed to do something it hadn’t yet in nearly a decade and a half of war: take a provincial capitol, the city of Kunduz, and hold it for several weeks before being dispatched.
The Taliban’s latest, if fleeting, success underscores the problems with the US modus operandi: Kunduz’s fall is just the latest example of how, despite the American presence, Afghan forces’ capabilities to protect their country languish far behind schedule. In the Kunduz fight, American air forces wound up bombing a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital and 22 people died, including 12 of the relief organization’s staffers and three children. We don’t yet know exactly how or why the MSF attack happened, but initial reporting has indicated that Afghan forces and American special forces called in the airstrike despite MSF officials having given notice of their specific location to American forces.
Just before Obama’s announcement, The Intercept unveiled a massive package of reporting on how America’s wars abroad function, including and especially in Afghanistan – namely, that the war is often, though not always, fought from the sky, with little accountability. The Intercept revealed that, according to classified documents, during five months of one particular 2013 campaign in Afghanistan, “nearly nine out of 10 people who died in airstrikes were not the Americans’ direct targets.”
Perhaps the Kunduz hospital attacks and the Intercept documents about the US drone usage in Afghanistan indicate that the number of troops in country is of less importance than we think. Retaining current troop levels isn’t a necessary condition to endless war; maybe it’s little more than a symbolic nod to its endlessness.
Obama stressed during his remarks that “our mission will not change”: American troops will remain focused on training the Afghan army and counter-terrorism operations. When Obama the presidential candidate, in 2008, offered justifications for ramping up the war in Afghanistan, he said, “The Taliban controls parts of Afghanistan.” Though his now-ended surge pushed the insurgents out of most urban areas, Obama acknowledged Thursday that “the Taliban has made gains, especially in rural areas.”
Will those gains be reversed in the next year with only 10,000 troops and the same special forces raids and drone attacks that have characterized American efforts since the end of the surge? That seems unlikely. So does the prospect of Afghanistan maintaining its own security any time soon.
In the early years of the Iraq War, as security deteriorated amid a burgeoning civil war, President George W Bush responded to critics by pledging, again and again, to “stay the course”. The mantra remained the cornerstone of his administration’s strategy in Iraq, even though Bush dropped the phrase when the war became unpopular. His stubborn inability to adjust to circumstances rather than “stay the course” became the source of scorching criticisms of the war’s conduct and a lasting legacy of the Bush administration.
Obama’s policy was never to stay the course, but that’s exactly what he’s doing. The war that he promised to end but couldn’t now represents Obama’s failure to stay his course – of ending the “good war”. Bush’s first war will now be a pockmark on another president’s legacy, and last into yet a third leader’s term.