Obama misses chance
to be brave, wise on
withdrawal of troops
President Obama speaks in the Rose Garden about Afghanistan on Tuesday.
President Obama missed an opportunity to demonstrate both courage and wisdom on Afghanistan on Tuesday.
“This is the year we will conclude our combat mission in Afghanistan,” he said.
One could almost hear an echo from the 1970s when Richard Nixon was talking about the US exit from Vietnam: “peace with honor.”
But, if combat is over, why are all the troops not coming home immediately?
The US has done everything it could to bring peace and stability to a region that has known little of either for a millennium.
How do you tell the last soldier killed in Afghanistan that he died for a mistake?
Of course it was not this president’s error.
In his brief Rose Garden appearance the president tried to turn the page on US involvement abroad.
“[Let us] begin a new chapter in the story of American leadership around the world,” Obama said.
“Starting next year, Afghans will be fully responsible for securing their country.”
He did not, however, answer what could be accomplished by leaving a token force – less than 10,000 – in a country where they are clearly unwelcome and ineffective.
The decision on Afghanistan is announced by the President on Tuesday. (From White House video.)
The president’s announcement of the eventual end of US military involvement in Afghanistan in 2016, while welcome, cannot however be seen in isolation.
His statement offered a clear view into his thinking on the many other trouble spots around the globe where US influence is limited. Obama could easily have started a new war in Syria, and must be sorely tempted to ratchet up the response to Russian meddling in Ukraine.
“Americans have learned that it is harder to end wars than begin them,” the president said, wisely.
We should have known this 13 years ago, but it took two disastrous, expensive and almost futile interventions for the lesson to sink in.
But it is not yet over … and, according to the president, will not really be over for two more years.
In promising to end military involvement in Afghanistan by 2016, the president noted: “When I took office we had over 180,000 troops in harms way. By the end of this year we will have less than 10,000.”
History will not be kind on this point.
We ostensibly invaded Afghanistan to fight an Al Qaida harbored by the Taliban. But can anyone say either group has been decisively defanged after 13 years?
The Taliban are resurgent in Afghanistan, and Al Qaida has spawned so many copycat affiliates around the globe that it can no longer be seen as a unified entity.
How, then, can “victory” be measured?
The president seemed to recognize this in his prepared remarks.
“This is how wars end in the 21st century,” he said.
There will be no V-Day parades and tickertape. We will leave an Afghanistan in much the same way we found it: impoverished, violent, largely unable to defend itself. It is as much a failed state after 13 years of US involvement as it was in 2001.
It is a great pity the president did not announce the complete withdrawal of all US forces effective immediately. There is nothing to be gained by prolonging the agony.
We might pretend the outcome will be better two years hence. Will someone please turn out the lights when the last American personnel leave?
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