President Obama’s latest announcement regarding his Afghanistan policy was, in substance and timing, ideal for his political interests: He can boast (and already has) that all U.S. troops will be home from Afghanistan before the end of his eight years in office. It is ruinous for just about everyone else: for all of the Afghan presidential candidates, who are running on a strong, permanent partnership with the United States; for the Afghan people who have tentatively and hopefully thrown in their lot with Americans; and for the U.S. and NATO troops now asked to sacrifice for an already-abandoned mission.
Good politics at home and in the short term looks very different abroad and for the long term. The president has broken an implicit promise he repeatedly made that the U.S. would stand by the Afghan government. It’s long been agreed that the Afghans should assume full responsibility for combat operations after this year, and partly to Obama’s credit, their forces have grown dramatically in size and capacity over the past several years. But they still need support and training from American troops, and the president has now put an expiration date on that aid.
Once U.S. troops have left Afghanistan, the country’s war will not disappear, but most of our ability to affect it will. American troops will never be welcomed back, counterterrorism operations will be ineffective without a big-enough presence to gather intelligence, and the economic and political partnership President Obama envisions will hardly be enough to help the government continue to solidify its position.
In three weeks, Afghans will go to the polls to choose between two presidential candidates. Both of them got to the final round by promising to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States, and both of them will face the task of knitting together a political coalition, maintaining the loyalty of the country’s manifold provinces, and holding off the Taliban each summer. The next Afghan president will now assume office with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and plenty of other deadly foes knowing that in two years he will be fending for himself. The same dilemma will confront every governor, local leader, policeman, and soldier in Afghanistan — an overwhelming majority of whom want the U.S. and NATO to stay.
President Obama had never promised a large enduring presence in Afghanistan, but he had promised this would remain an important partnership — this meant on-the-ground security cooperation and support.
One strategy Vice President Biden favored was maintaining enough troops there to conduct counterterrorism operations, amounting to two or three thousand men. The Biden plan, despite its expert provenance, is simply too small to support robust intelligence gathering, so counterterror operations would be either highly risky or entirely pointless. That force level is just below what Afghanistan will have next year, when the meager troop levels the president announced will be cut to 5,000 or so.
The 9,800 troops that will remain for 2014 is the smallest possible number that could maintain support and training operations outside of Kabul and Bagram air base. It’s still better than going to nothing this year, but strategy is a futures game, and Afghans will start hedging.
And we suspect President Obama may not even have the political will to continue U.S. funding for the Afghan armed forces. Their gains will go for naught if the Afghan government doesn’t have the money to pay the salaries of 350,000 soldiers and tens of thousands of police Americans have trained. And without rudimentary security, there go the impressive gains Afghans have made with American help in other arenas: millions of girls in school, life expectancy boosted by 20 years, and a healthier economy than the Taliban ever oversaw.
All of this is now being sacrificed on the altar of immediate political convenience. Unless Obama reverses course on his plans for complete withdrawal, the next American president will inherit an alliance worth virtually nothing in a region where radical Islamism and militant groups of all stripes — enemies of America and of the West — will grow more or less unimpeded, goaded and supplied by rogue regimes. The branch of al-Qaeda supposedly put “on the path to defeat” by American drone strikes can easily flourish again.
Indeed, Afghanistan isn’t the only place the next president will inherit such a situation. President Obama had promised that Afghanistan was the good war, the one where we’d focus, where he was committed to victory. He has now formally, even proudly, broken that promise, too.