President Obama announced this week that the combat mission in Afghanistan is coming to a close. Provided the newly elected leader of Afghanistan signs the bilateral security agreement to keep US forces there, the president stated after 2014 just 9,800 US troops will remain in an advisory role only to continue to train Afghan forces. The president also announced that by 2017, the American presence in Afghanistan will be typical embassy staff only.
This announcement is significant for two reasons, first, it is the end of the 9/11 era, the blackest mark on American foreign policy and society in the last 70 years. Second, the announcement commits the United States to a reduced war footprint the president has maintained and campaigned on dating back to the beginning of his presidency.
The world is much different now than it was in the aftermath of 9/11. The president has tried to reflect this outlook through his most recent budget proposal noting that the US must be more nimble to address the changing threat. The United States is currently operating on a platform that is over ten years old. In other words, the Authorization for Use of Military Force has not been revised or repealed and continued operations in Afghanistan reflect an old objective – bring those who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 to justice. For many dissenters, the pull out of Afghanistan is pre-mature and some want the US to stay until the job is complete. There have been several parallels made to post-World War II and post-Korean War troop levels in countries involved in those conflicts as reasons to keep troops in Afghanistan. At the end of World War II, there was a tangible feeling of victory. This begs the question, what does victory in the Afghanistan War mean?
Victory in Afghanistan should mean that those who attacked the United States on 9/11 were brought to justice, which the argument can be made, that they have. The al-Qaeda that attacked the United States on 9/11, now sometimes referred to as “core-al-Qaeda,” has evolved. When the United States went to war in Afghanistan, it was for justice against those who planned the attack. Since 2001, the face of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, has been killed and the administration asserts that core-al-Qaeda is on the run. However, the conflict has since changed. Al-Qaeda is not who it used to be and furthermore, several additional terrorist groups also threaten United States’ security. Now, the conflict must shift to what the United States faces, which is a series of terrorist networks with loose hierarchical command from top to bottom that enjoys regional autonomy for the most part – not nation-building.
Al-Qaeda has spread throughout the world now and is not just located in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, many African nations from the Horn to Northern Africa, to Western Africa have struggled to combat such terrorist forces. France has had their hands full in Western Africa trying to quell terrorist uprisings alongside local governments. In today’s modern conflict, it does not make sense to continue down the path of an old conflict that arose over ten years ago and keep thousands of troops in one landlocked region.
President Obama inherited two wars, and vowed to end both of them. While keeping a campaign promise is not always the most important thing, especially if it compromises the safety and security of Americans (in this case ending the wars pre-maturely as some see it), President Obama is looking towards the evolving threat. The efforts in Iraq were aimed at nation-building, which was not necessarily the primary goal of the war in Afghanistan. The president is keeping his promise of getting America off a permanent war footing fulfilling his campaign promises.
The decision to withdraw should not be perceived as running away as some have viewed the withdrawal from Iraq. Unfortunately, Iraq is plagued with sectarian violence that can be attributed to the lack of Sunni involvement in the majority Shia government that virtually went on a path of retribution against Sunnis for years of oppression by the Sunni Saddam regime. Sunni’s who have been marginalized by the Shia Iraqi government after the fall of Saddam have grown fed up, which has led to widespread violence and unrest. Sectarianism is something US forces are not trained or capable of combating or even understanding.
Rather, the pullout from Afghanistan should signify victory for the Afghan people and the nation-building efforts lent to the nation as well as an adaption to the evolving global situation. The United States is hopeful that the first ever democratic elections in Afghanistan will not mirror the situation in Iraq and that continued counterterrorism training of Afghan security forces will allow the host government to combat threats internally. Ultimately, the responsibility should fall on the host government to protect their people. President Obama’s three objectives after the 2014 drawdown, which he outlined in a Rose Garden speech earlier this week, are; 1) disrupting threats; 2) support Afghan security forces, and; 3) support the Afghan people.
President Obama’s strategy is a reflection of two things: the war-weariness of the American people, and his more tapered approach to military intervention. The president has relied on diplomacy as the primary option while not shying away from military action, which is evident through the aggressive drone campaign he has waged. Policy differences aside, the conclusion of the war in Afghanistan is a symbol of a new era of American foreign policy post-9/11 that should reflect the threat America faces. As President Obama said to cadets graduating from the United States Military Academy during his speech at their commencement ceremony, “you are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.”