The Corner

Unlearning Iraq and Abandoning Afghanistan

An Associated Press headline from Monday provides a dispiriting glimpse into the dispiriting reality of Iraq following the Obama administration’s abandonment of that mission: 30 dead, 70 injured after multiple bomb attacks in Iraq.

In the rush to “​end the war”​ in Iraq, the administration’s failure to secure a status of forces agreement (or rather, the intentional choice not to finalize such an agreement) has had a sad and predictable result: Iraq is now mired in chaos and instability, with portions of the country even controlled by al-Qaeda. It’s painful to watch so much effort and sacrifice be sacrificed for political expediency.

And it’s doubly painful to see that we’re poised to make the same mistake in Afghanistan. A Reuters story details how the administration is considering dropping the U.S. presence in Afghanistan to less than 10,000 troops, and possibly fewer than 5,000.

By way of comparison, consider that Fort Hood in Texas boasts an active duty population of more than 41,000 personnel. Five thousand troops in Afghanistan, a country only a little smaller than the entire state of Texas, amounts to little more than a skeleton force–barely capable of simultaneously defending themselves, training Afghan security forces, and hunting al-Qaeda cells.

Not surprisingly, cutting the force in Afghanistan so precipitously clashes with the recommendations of military and intelligence experts, as the Reuters story explains:

Military leaders, including American General Joe Dunford, who heads U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has identified 10,000 soldiers as the minimum needed to help train and advise Afghan forces fighting the insurgency, arguing a smaller force would struggle to protect itself.

During a March visit to Washington, Dunford told lawmakers that without foreign soldiers supporting them, Afghan forces would begin to deteriorate “fairly quickly” in 2015. The Afghan air force, still several years away from being self-sufficient, will require even more assistance, he said.

A smaller U.S. force could have other unintended consequences, possibly discouraging already skeptical lawmakers from fully funding U.S. commitments to help fund Afghan forces.

As a veteran who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I was a witness to how unwise war planning could have disastrous effects—but I also saw how a strong commitment to winning, as we saw with the “surge” strategy in 2007, could turn the tide. President Obama ostensibly endorsed that purposeful strategy when he adopted a similar “surge” for Afghanistan in 2011.

Of course, we now know that the president’s commitment to the Afghanistan surge was an illusion, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates detailed in his memoirs published earlier this year. Lacking the courage of conviction, the Obama administration’s surge wasn’t aimed at finishing the war—only ending it.

We see now in Iraq the wages of failing to finish the job. And as the U.S. makes a similar rush for the exits from Afghanistan, we can expect reports of chaos and instability as another abandoned and beleaguered country unravels. It would be a sad ending to a decade of service and sacrifice—but it didn’t have to be that way.

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