How Will Afghanistan Shape President Obama’s Legacy?

December 5, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

With the ongoing threats of the Islamic State, the Ebola outbreak, and a myriad of other national security concerns, what will President Obama’s legacy in the national security realm look like?  Following the resignation/firing of his third Defense Secretary and reports of a highly centralized administration (combined with hotly debated polices), President Obama has struggled to win over support for his foreign policy, which is exemplified by outgoing House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon’s (R-CA) who  stated, “When the President goes through three [Defense] Secretaries, he should ask ‘is it them, or is it me?'”  This president is one who wanted to focus on more domestic issues, such as affordable healthcare and the economy, and was hampered by the inheritance of two wars, which he sought to conclude.  Despite the conclusion of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2011, the White House has reneging slightly going against their own proposal announcement in May of this year that outlined a timetable for the eventual withdrawal of combat troops in Afghanistan.

President Obama received much criticism for announcing a timetable for withdrawal in Afghanistan for several reasons, chief of which was detailing the progressive decline of troops year by year. Critics claimed it was not contingency-based and they were concerned that Afghanistan could suffer the same fate as Iraq if the US withdrew without considering factors on the ground such as the state of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the strength of the newly elected Afghan government, or the strength of the sparsely resurgent insurgency.

The Washington Post is reporting that the White House is finalizing a plan to keep troops in Afghanistan after 2014 above the previously announced 9,800 soldiers.  President Obama has, at times in closed circles, indicated his frustration and disinterest in issues concerning foreign policy.  He ran on a platform to end “dumb wars” that, at the time in 2007-2008, were unpopular with the American people.  However, he has since expanded several Bush administration polices, began a new incursion against the Islamic State, and has now strayed on his Afghanistan withdrawal plan.

This president, like all before him, is concerned about his legacy.  With a rise of radical Islam, threats from Russia, and Ebola, many disagree with the president’s small footprint military model.  President Obama’s decision to modify his drawdown plan in Afghanistan will likely anger liberals especially those who voted for him because he promised to end the wars he inherited.  This begs the question, is it more important to uphold ideological values, or react to realities?

Many in national security circles believe that the ANSF is not ready for the US and NATO drawdown.  The Taliban has slowly begun to increase attacks to test the strength of the ANSF.  President Obama does not want to be on the hook for a failed state after the billions of dollars America has poured into rebuilding Afghanistan over the past 13 years.  Also at stake is the future of the War on Terror.  Despite assessments from high ranking military officials in Iraq at the time of the withdrawal that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the nation was stable, many on the right wanted a residual presence of US forces.  Senator John McCain (R-AZ) famously stated during his 2008 presidential campaign that troops could be in Iraq for 100 years.

That said, when can or should the US withdraw from Afghanistan?  Will there ever come a time when the US believes the Afghan state is completely stable?  Are government officials being dishonest when they set timetables or polices (especially in the context of increased troop levels)?  In an interview with The Intercept, author and New York Times journalist James Risen discussed his new book, “Pay Any Price,” which focuses, in part, on keeping the War on Terror alive.  “Your[] [book] is really one of the first that has focused on a particular part of the War on Terror, namely the way in which economic motives, what you call the Homeland Security Industrial Complex, has driven a huge part of the war, and there’s a lot of new reporting about how that functions…how much of this economic motive is the cause of the fact that we’ve now been at war for 13 years…” Glenn Greenwald asked Risen, who responded, “I think it’s basically that after so many years there’s a whole class of people that have developed. A post-9/11 mercenary class that’s developed that have invested in their own lives an incentive to keep the war going. Not just people who are making money, but people who are in the government who their status and their power within the government are invested in continuing the war. So I was trying to show that it wasn’t just greed—it was partly greed—but it was also status, and power, and ambition that all intertwined to make it so that there’s very little debate about whether to continue the war, and whether we should have any real re-assessment on a basic level.”

President Obama has let down many liberals who believed in his campaign mantra of “Hope and Change” from NSA surveillance, to the targeting of American citizens abroad with drones, to failing to close Guantanamo Bay.  The recent decision concerning Afghanistan is likely another point of contention between the president and many of his 2008 supporters.  President Obama has continued and expanded several programs of his predecessor and in many instances further embedded the perpetual war state he sought to curtail.

However, there are realities to which the average American is not privy.  Perhaps the president is reacting to realities on the ground that are unknown to many Americans.  Maybe he is motivated by something else.  Regardless, the drawdown in Afghanistan will play a large part in the president’s foreign policy legacy – pragmatist, or ideologically dishonest. Either way, it’s clear President Obama does not want to be responsible for the collapse of Afghanistan.