Why Obama Finally Called It Quits in Afghanistan

Military analysis.
Jan. 11 2013 5:59 PM

We Are So Out of There

Obama has called it quits in Afghanistan—while redefining why we ever went.

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US President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai after a joint press conference in the East Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 11, 2013. Obama and Karzai said that US forces would hand the lead in the fight against the Taliban to Afghan forces in the next few months. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

If there were any doubts, President Obama’s press conference today with Afghan president Hamid Karzai should dispel them: We are so out of there, at least as a full-bore fighting force, and sooner than previously scheduled.

NATO had planned, with Karzai’s assent, to pull out all Western combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But Obama said today that he will scale back U.S. troops to a “support role” starting this spring—that is, sometime in the next few months. From then on, he said, Afghan forces “will take the lead,” while “the nature of our work will be a training, assisting, and advising role.”

Obama spun the news as a victory lap. “It will be a historic moment,” he proclaimed, “another step toward full Afghan sovereignty.” That’s one way to put it.

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When one reporter asked if our accomplishments in this war had been worth all the bloodshed, Obama recalled the reason we intervened in Afghanistan in the first place—the 3,000 Americans killed on Sept. 11, 2001, as a result of an attack that al-Qaida had planned on Afghan soil. Our “central goal” ever since, he said, has been to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida while also bringing Osama bin Laden to justice. Mission accomplished.

But this answer was misleading. It sidestepped the fact that, at the end of 2009, Obama sent an additional 33,000 troops to Afghanistan, a surge of nearly 50 percent above the 68,000 already there—and that he did so not to go after bin Laden and al-Qaida (a task that could have been handled with far fewer forces) but rather to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy, at least in the cities, particularly in the southern districts. This strategy involved not only killing and capturing bad guys but also helping to reform the Afghan government and providing the people with basic services—in short, nation-building.

What Obama didn’t mention is that this surge and this strategy were not a success. He’d treated the strategy as an experiment; he gave it 18 months to work, and his generals assured him that would be enough time for the Afghan military to take the lead in a majority of the country’s districts, even though some of them knew very well it would take longer. They gambled that enough progress would be made to convince the president to give them more time and more troops. They gambled wrong. After 18 months, almost to the day, Obama announced that he would start pulling out all 33,000 surge troops—and not replace them with any new ones. This too he publicly presented as a victory, and by the same rationale: bin Laden had been killed, al-Qaida decimated, Taliban foot soldiers routed. But the goals of the surge—the goals of the counterinsurgency strategy—had not been accomplished. Obama simply—and wisely—rejected them; the experiment was over; he wasn’t going to double down.

Some officers and analysts blame Obama for the failure. They argue that by announcing the beginnings of a troop pullout before the surge even began, he signaled to the Taliban that we were leaving and that they could simply wait us out. There might be something to this argument. But the bigger, central problem was with Afghanistan itself.

Of all the foreign leaders installed by Western powers in the last 60 years, Karzai has been one of the most frustrating. In 2009, the U.S. ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, complained in a widely leaked memo that Karzai was “not an adequate strategic partner.” A year later, after one of the Afghan president’s more petulant fits, the top U.S. commander, Gen. David Petraeus, threatened to pull his support for the mission, telling one of Karzai’s advisers, “Your president has put me in an untenable position. Please take note of that word. I chose it carefully.” Karzai calmed down, for a while.