Last night, President Obama continually criticized Mitt Romney for having supported a long-term commitment of troops in Iraq, and the two men agreed that they would like to leave Afghanistan promptly in 2014. But neither man was being quite honest. For one, President Obama, like Romney, did propose keeping troops in Iraq after December of 2011. A New York Times story from this September explains:
The White House, meanwhile, wanted to avoid any perception that it was chasing after a deal to keep troops in Iraq after promising that combat forces would be brought home. By August, White House aides were pressing to scale back the mission and to reopen the issue of how many troops might be needed.
Mrs. Clinton and Leon E. Panetta, who succeeded Mr. Gates as the defense secretary, argued that talks should continue and that the goal, as before, should be to keep a force of up to 10,000.
On Aug. 13, Mr. Obama settled the matter in a conference call in which he ruled out the 10,000 troop option and a smaller 7,000 variant. The talks would proceed but the size of the force the United States might keep was shrunk: the new goal would be a continuous presence of about 3,500 troops, a rotating force of up to 1,500 and half a dozen F-16’s.
But there was no agreement. Some experts say that given the Iraqis’ concerns about sovereignty, and Iranian pressure, the politicians in Baghdad were simply not prepared to make the hard decisions that were needed to secure parliamentary approval. Others say the Iraqis sensed the Americans’ ambivalence and were being asked to make unpopular political decisions for a modest military benefit.
That is, President Obama (and his administration) was definitely trying to keep American troops in harm’s way in Iraq (as well they should have). He only ended up failing in this effort because he wasn’t willing to commit enough troops (7–10,000) that the Iraqi government would consider the added security to be worth the domestic ignominy of allowing a permanent American presence. But Obama was unwilling to commit 10,000 troops, and not because compared to 1,500 or 3,500, it represented a significant burden to the U.S., but because a truly substantial residual force like that would have reduced the political dividend he hoped to gain by ending the Iraq War (the importance of which to him we now know, given how much he’s mentioned it during this campaign). He can hardly claim to have responsibly ended the Iraq War when he instead compromised what could have been a useful (and not very costly) strategic opportunity for America in a bid for political gain.
Meanwhile, last night Obama and Romney also seemed to agree that, come 2014, the U.S. will leave Afghanistan entirely and leave the security of that nation to its government alone. But both men should be reminded: That’s not the plan, and it’s certainly not what the Obama administration is working to implement right now. In April, the U.S. and Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement, and the latter was named a major non-NATO ally. That agreement explains that the U.S. military will have a role in funding and training Afghan forces after 2014, and requires that negotiations occur within a year to produce a bilateral security agreement, which would delineate specifically in what capacity and how many U.S. forces would remain in Afghanistan.
That negotiation has now begun, and while it is not guaranteed that there will be non-negligible U.S. bases remaining in Afghanistan, one thing is different from Iraq: Whatever troop commitment President Obama or a president Romney would be willing to make, the Afghan government is likely to take it. Assuming that we determine the strategic usefulness of bases in Afghanistan is worth the costs and risks of them, the Afghan government is so fragile that it will have little choice but to assent, as former ISAF commander General George McKiernan explained to me in April. One of the most unfortunate aspects of last night’s debate was the fact that Obama and Romney were (however unsurprisingly) so eager to score political points by truncating our commitment to Afghanistan. In Romney’s case, this was a significant revision of prior proposals. However, given that the president’s claims also belied what his diplomats are doing right now, one hopes that both men would, after the election, reconsider making a similar mistake to the one Obama already made in Iraq.