Speaking at a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery after making a surprise visit to Afghanistan, President Barack Obama stated, “By the end of this year, our war in Afghanistan will finally come to an end.”
President Obama is reportedly opting to maintain a residual force of nearly 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after America’s formal combat operations role concludes there at the end of 2014. The U.S. currently has about 32,800 troops in the country.
The troops remaining behind would focus on counterterrorism and training. However, the plan is not for them to be stationed in Afghanistan indefinitely, only for an additional two years until the end of 2016. While outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to cooperate in approving the security arrangements for any residual American force, his successor is expected to sign the required Bilateral Security Agreement, a precondition for any residual forces to remain.
President Obama does not want to see the disaster that has unfolded in Iraq, after he decided to pull all remaining American troops out of that country at once, play out again in Afghanistan. Although he ran for president on an anti-war platform and promised to end America’s combat role in Iraq once he became president, Obama had said back in 2007: “We will need to retain some forces in Iraq and the region. We’ll continue to strike at al-Qaeda in Iraq.” That did not happen because of the Obama administration’s failure to reach a status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government that we were supporting. The result was that Obama’s complete withdrawal of American forces from Iraq essentially reversed the positive results of the military surge undertaken there by former President George W. Bush. Obama managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, as Iraq once again has descended into sectarian violence.
As long as Obama is commander in chief, expect the same thing to happen in Afghanistan. Although he has been resolute and somewhat successful in his use of drones against al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, his stewardship of the American combat operations in Afghanistan has been half-hearted at best. He is simply kicking the can down the road to 2016, his deadline for removing any remaining U.S. forces from Afghanistan. He will then bequeath the consequences to his successor.
Obama hesitated for months before ordering his own significant surge of military forces in Afghanistan in December 2009. He settled for a level that was lower than the military had advised. Then he publicly announced a fixed date for withdrawal of troops to begin, which allowed the Taliban to essentially bide their time. His administration also imposed onerous rules of engagement on our troops that put them at further risk.
All told, approximately 72 percent of the U.S. military fatalities in Afghanistan since 2001 have occurred under Obama’s watch. At the same time, there has been no discernible progress in protecting civilians from terrorist attacks. Nearly 3,000 civilians were killed in 2013, more than eight per day, the vast majority of whom were killed by anti-government forces such as the Taliban.
The civilian deaths in 2013 matched the record highs of 2011. In addition, there were more than 5,500 civilians injured during 2013.
“There are groups that are boasting about killing civilians, are making statements about how good it is that civilians are being targeted and killed,” said United Nations Assistance Mission special representative Jan Kubis. This is going on with three times the American troops that will be left behind under the residual forces plan. Will our own residual forces operating under restrictive rules of engagement and lacking adequate reinforcements become sitting ducks for a resurgent Taliban as well as turncoat Afghan police and soldiers? Quite likely.
In short, Obama’s so-called Afghanistan “surge,” which came with a short expiration period, only served to embolden the jihadists. They saw right through Obama’s ambivalence, which helps explain why any meaningful peace talks with the Taliban were never in the cards. They only have to wait Obama out and re-emerge full-force. New havens established for al Qaeda and other jihadists are sure to follow, as the Taliban and al Qaeda have maintained their ties.
“With the help of Allah, the valiant Afghans under the Jihadi leadership of Islamic Emirate defeated the military might and numerous strategies of America and NATO alliance,” the Taliban bragged in a statement back in 2012.
Karzai, our supposed ally in Afghanistan, does not have any respect for Obama either. The ingrate Karzai turned down Obama’s invitation to meet during Obama’s short Afghan visit at the Bagram air base. At least Karzai will be stepping down shortly, but it remains to be seen whether his successor will turn out to be any better.
In his memoir, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote critically of President Obama’s commitment to winning the war in Afghanistan: “For him, it’s all about getting out,” Gates said. By early 2010, Gates added, he had concluded that President Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his.” Obama, along with his key advisors, also harbored “suspicion and distrust of senior military officers,” according to Gates, who found himself trying “to manage the relationship between the commander in chief and his military leaders.”
Meanwhile, al Qaeda has metastasized under Obama’s watch. His focus on the so-called “core” al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, against whom he has deployed drones, has done little to thwart the expansion of jihadism all over Africa and the Middle East. The jihadists are destabilizing Libya, where Obama’s “lead from behind” strategy opened the door to the jihadists, who killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi and are de-stabilizing the country. Nigeria and other parts of Africa have also fallen prey to deadly attacks by al Qaeda affiliates.
Jihadists from Afghanistan and Pakistan are among the thousands of foreigners flooding into Syria, threatening to turn that country into another haven for al Qaeda affiliates. The Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP: Movement of Pakistani Taliban) in particular has infiltrated Syria with the help of The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. These transplanted “core” Pakistani Taliban are providing training and their expertise in battle to other jihadists fighting the Assad regime, with the intention of replacing it with an Islamic caliphate. Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder, reporting from Islamabad, said the Taliban claimed that “Arab fighters in Syria had requested their help, that hundreds of their fighters were preparing to go there, or were already in Syria.”
Whether President Obama ends up leaving a residual force in Afghanistan through 2016 will not change the fact that Afghanistan will again become fertile ground for jihadism and a potential haven once more from which to launch attacks against the United States. At the same time, the “core” Taliban and al Qaeda jihadists, whom Obama says are on the run, are actually busy helping to run deadly operations without fear far from their original “core” bases.
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