Pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq is one of the longest standing goals of the Obama administration. Time and again, the president of the United States has pledged to bring the soldiers back home, with his latest vow being the plan to draw down troop strength in Afghanistan from its current 9,800 to about 1,000 by the end of 2016 – the end of his term in the Oval Office.
However, with General John F. Campbell proposing to retain higher troop levels in Afghanistan for an indefinite amount of time, Obama’s ambition to be remembered as the president who inherited the nation’s longest war and ended it no longer holds water.
Afghanistan remains a hotbed of terrorist activity. If the recent Kunduz tragedy is any indication, the longest war in the history of the U.S. has by no means ended. Officers, including Campbell, believe that pulling troops out before Afghan forces can stand and fight on their own would be a perilous mistake. They liken it to the unraveling that occurred when U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011 and opened the way for the Islamic State militants, who now control large parts of the region.
While leaving 1,000 troops in a war-torn country might be enough to provide security for an embassy, it won’t be an effective counterterrorism strategy.
Moreover, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ash Carter have both recommended retaining a permanent garrison that is much larger than the president’s plan for 1,000 military personnel for years to come. Although Obama has not officially complied with the request, he hasn’t dismissed it either.
“I think that’s an argument that can be made to the American people,” the president said, according to a senior administration official who attended the meeting and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
More than 40 percent of Americans believe that the war in Afghanistan was a mistake to begin with, and the latest developments seem to have unsettled many. Leaving a noteworthy military presence in Afghanistan was never part of the legacy Obama envisioned when he vowed to end the wars by the end of his presidency.
Given the fragile situation in Iraq and the recent gains by the Taliban in Afghanistan, it is not likely that U.S. troops can leave anytime soon. But will the war ever truly, completely end?
The tragic events in both the countries have made it apparent that the foreign forces chosen by U.S. leaders do not have much domestic support, vigor or organization. Meanwhile, their adversaries always seem more prepared, capable and far more committed to their cause – no matter how socially repulsive it is.
Keeping the extent of recent failures in mind, it seems there's always going to be a war raging on in some setting. If the U.S. continues with its counterterrorism strategy – which it probably will – Obama will not be able to fulfill the vows he made during his election and re-election campaigns to bring the troops back home.