was elected to end the grueling ground wars of his predecessor, but he will leave office entrenching a military era defined by an inability to achieve either victory or extrication.
Obama’s decision to to end the US military commitment to Afghanistan reflects a twilight period in US warfare: after more than a decade, military commanders are unable to defeat an insurgency or field an indigenous proxy force and political leaders are unwilling to accept the blame of losing a war or openly committing the US to indefinite combat.
The result is a fudge that favors a rump force based on dubious military necessity and a hope that, at some point, the local force – whether in , Iraq or elsewhere – will be able to shoulder the burden.
While “no one wants to quote, ‘lose a war’ on their watch”, said retired army lieutenant general Dan Bolger, who once led the training of the Afghan army, the US is “kidding ourselves – the US-led counterinsurgency has already been lost, the Afghans’ counterinsurgency is on. We have to decide: do we contribute to it, and how?”
The latest version of Obama’s plans for Afghanistan is to , with the aspiration to reduce this number to 5,500 by the time Obama leaves office. These will be based at Bagram, north of Kabul; Jalalabad in the east; and Kandahar in the south.
Reflecting the military’s wariness of abandoning Afghanistan, the revision follows a pattern established throughout Obama’s presidency: to tell the American public that the “tide of war is receding”, as his 2012 campaign mantra put it, while not actually stopping it.
“After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home,” Obama in December 2009, announcing his troop surge in Afghanistan. But then July 2011 became , only this time with the caveat that “combat” would end – though not counter-terrorism, to be waged by special operations forces whose secretive missions do not inspire domestic political backlash.
White House aides floated a “” as a tactic to pressure former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, but he defanged the threat by correctly assessing that Obama would make no such decisive move. Obama first chose to through most of 2015, after which time he said he would cut that number by “roughly half”. Then he deferred the 2015 drawdown and has now punted it, with a geographic dispersion beyond Kabul, to the end of his presidency.
Bolger considers the 5500 number to be militarily dubious: “A very tiny special ops presence, minimal air power, minimal intelligence and logistics support,” capable of keeping the American flag aloft and little else. Continuing the training of Afghan troops, which Obama frequently describes as the lion’s share of the residual mission, will occur at the corps or ministerial level, where “you’re entertaining yourself looking at PowerPoint” more than substantively building a force, Bolger said.
“At a certain point, the Taliban will do the math and say, ‘These Americans aren’t a threat, they’re hostages,” continued Bolger, who titled his book about the post-9/11 experience .
The specter of Iraq hangs over the Afghanistan decision. While Obama withdrew the vast majority of US forces from Iraq in 2011 and claimed credit for it, he restarted and slowly escalated the US commitment to Iraq once the Islamic State conquered Mosul in June 2014. After the Taliban took Kunduz in late September, Obama appeared unwilling to risk a repeat in Afghanistan, even after US forces supporting Afghans fighting to retake the city .
Clausewitz once wrote that securing an enemy’s compliance requires “plac[ing] him in a situation which is more oppressive to him than the sacrifice which we demand”. The Taliban has proven after 14 years that the US cannot place it in that situation at acceptable sacrifice. Obama’s most vociferous critics are unwilling to call for a re-escalation in Afghanistan, a barometer of how brittle US support for its longest war actually is.
The result is warfare in both Afghanistan and Iraq whose closest approximation to success is not victory over the insurgency, but rather the persistence of a US presence. With a gamble that the all-volunteer military limits the American exposure to the horrors of war, both the Bush and Obama administrations have drifted toward indefinite commitment and sponsorship of foreign proxies, as in Korea, Germany and Japan – only without achieving either the Korean armistice nor the German and Japanese victory.
Bolger would prefer a “treaty”, presented to the Senate for ratification, to forthrightly state the open-ended commitment and requiring politicians to state their preference. Yet that seems unlikely: the cost-free dynamic of legislative irresponsibility means that Congress is happy to allow Obama to wage wars in Libya and Iraq without explicit ratification.
Obama has now given up on ending US wars. Like Bush before him, he passes off to his successor the decision whether to disentangle or escalate, and his likely successors – except for longshot candidate Bernie Sanders – are more hawkish than he is.
He is maybe the closest thing to a peace president that the US has elected in a generation. But along with Obama’s , twilight wars are his legacy.