Barack Obama’s decision to to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by the time he leaves office in January 2017 will be greeted with concern by friends and derision by foes.
Whichever way the White House tries to spin it, Obama’s move directly contradicts his self-congratulatory, that he was “turning the page” on almost 15 years of war in Afghanistan. “This year we will bring America’s longest war to a responsible end,” he declared.
If it sounds like a U-turn, looks like a U-turn, and smells like a U-turn, then it’s probably a U-turn. You can almost hear Donald Trump and other Republican would-be Oval office replacements sharpening verbal barbs for the next TV debate.
Since most American voters were probably under the impression that the Afghan war was over bar the shouting, Obama’s decision turns into a potential hot potato issue in the 2016 presidential election.His foreign policy record is already under withering fire from Jeb Bush, who portrays the president as weak and dithering. The narrative includes post-withdrawal disintegration in Iraq (where US troop numbers are rising again), Obama’s alleged lethal carelessness with diplomats’ lives in Libya, and his blindsiding by Russia in Syria.
Add to that a dangerous nuclear deal with Iran (as Republicans and Israel’s government see it) and the apparent impotence in the face of Islamic State and the Afghanistan volte-face looks, , like clinching proof of serial failure by the commander-in-chief.
Obama’s legacy may suffer. But Hillary Clinton’s prospective future as Obama’s successor may be more seriously tainted. As secretary of state in his first term, Clinton spearheaded Afghan policy, including the political reformation that culminated in the sharp-elbowed Hamid Karzai being replaced as president in last year’s elections by the softer-spoken Ashraf Ghani.
Those who cautioned that the Afghan authorities – civilian and military – were not yet strong or dependable enough to take sole control of their country’s destiny were ignored. Despite Clinton’s insistence that the US , the urgent need to get out, linked to Obama’s remaining time in office, trumped concerns about what might follow.
The absence of any kind of prior peace deal or truce with the Taliban, a signal of diplomatic failure, has ensured that what has actually followed is a resurgence of insurgency. Taliban gains in the south, notably Helmand, were followed by the recent, spectacular fall of Kunduz in the north. Although the Taliban have now been pushed out of the city, their success in seizing it in the first place despite the best efforts of Afghan army troops was sobering in the extreme. Many saw it as a sign of things to come.
The fact that the most memorable US contribution to the battle for Kunduz was the with the loss of at least 22 lives, none of them insurgents, only emphasised how hapless and haphazard the US mission in Afghanistan has become.
Obama’s move will inevitably be seen as reflecting a lack of confidence in the Afghan security forces, despite billions of dollars spent in training and arming them in the past decade. Despite officials’ insistence that the decision was coordinated and discussed in advance with Ghani’s government, Kabul’s political bosses have lost face, too.
At the same time, it is hard to see how the decision to keep at least 5,500 American troops in-country for an apparently indefinite period, backed up, as now, with US combat aircraft and CIA drones, will make a significant difference. The remaining troops will be confined, Bosnia-like, to fortified camps at Bagram airfield – the largest US military base in the country – Jalalabad in the east, and Kandahar in the south. Again like in Bosnia in the 1990s, when American commanders appeared obsessed with “force protection” to the exclusion of more engaged roles, the troops will not take part in combat.
“We will continue to undertake only two narrow missions: counter-terrorism and training, advising and assisting our Afghan partners,” an official said. Without a hint of conscious self-parody, the administration said Nato partners fully supported the US move but had not yet offered to match it. Obama shouldn’t hold his breath. Given this restrictive context, and under its new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, fears will grow that the US may fall prey to a new round of mission creep.
Having crossed a psychological barrier and halted the withdrawal, pressure may grow on Obama and his successor to boost numbers in the hope that a policy that failed in the past will somehow start working in the future.
The Taliban must be loving this confusion in the heart of Washington. So too must al-Qaida and Islamic State, which has been busy setting up shop in Afghanistan in the wake of Nato’s withdrawal.
The losers, once again, are the Afghan people, trapped between frantic incompetence and fanatical intolerance. It is no accident that, after Syrians, Afghans are said to make up the largest proportion of