Most presidents are stubborn and self-confident. They wouldn’t have gotten into office otherwise. In fact it takes an almost superhuman level of stubbornness and self-confidence for most aspirants to imagine they have what it takes to win the Oval Office. But, like with most good traits, if carried to extremes stubbornness and self-confidence can become self-destructive. We saw that with George W. Bush’s unwillingness to change course in Iraq between 2003 and 2006 when the situation was rapidly deteriorating. We are seeing it now with President Obama’s unwillingness to rethink his misbegotten timeline for pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan.
The disastrous situation in Iraq today shows what happens when U.S. forces leave prematurely from a fragile state. Yet the president appears to be sticking by his politically imposed timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. While he is willing to keep 10,000 troops next year (a bare minimum to meet military requirements), he will reduce U.S. forces by half, to just 5,000 troops, by the end of 2015 and pull them out altogether by the end of 2016.
The New York Times quotes an anonymous Obama aide saying: “People have said, ‘Doesn’t this [situation in Iraq] show that you should never take the troops out of Afghanistan?’ He said, ‘No, it actually points to the imperative of having political accommodation. There’s a limit to what we can achieve absent a political process.’ ”
Huh? The very reason why the U.S. troop pullout from Afghanistan was so harmful was that it made it much harder for the political factions to pursue accommodation because they feared that, in the absence of U.S. troops, politics had become a winner-takes-all death match. Thus Nouri al-Maliki pursued a vendetta against Sunnis which created the soil for ISIS to spring up. By contrast, accommodation had been possible after the success of the surge in 2007-2008 which gave politicos some breathing room to compromise.
Has Obama truly learned nothing from history? Is he willing to let Afghanistan go down in flames as Iraq has been doing simply so that he can leave office bragging that he “ended” wars? If so, that goes beyond stubborness and into the realm of hubris for which, according to Greek mythology, there is inevitably a reckoning. That price will be paid in Obama’s historical reputation and, even worse, in the loss of American strategic objectives and the lives of Afghans who, like many Iraqis, foolishly trusted American promises of support.