A casual reader might be misled by the headline on this Associated Press article: “Officials: US to keep higher troop levels in Afghanistan.”
Does this mean that President Obama has abandoned his self-defeating plan to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan before he leaves office in 2017? Not quite. As the article notes, all that Obama may be doing (“no final decision on numbers has been made”) is possibly slowing down their rate of withdrawal. Originally Obama had announced plans to cut the U.S. force roughly in half, from some 10,000 today to 5,500 by the end of the year–a way station on the road to zero by 2017. Now, assuming the AP report is accurate, the administration may consent to leave more than 5,500 troops after 2015–a change urgently requested by the top U.S. commander, Gen. John Campbell, and President Ashraf Ghani, both of whom know how destabilizing a rapid U.S. withdrawal would be. But there is no indication that Obama is seriously rethinking his plan to pull out all U.S. troops before he leaves office.
We’ve seen this movie before. When Obama ran for the presidency in 2008, he promised to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq at the rate of one or two brigades a month, pulling all of them out within 16 months. Once in office, he slowed down the pace of the drawdown, at the request of U.S. commanders, but he still wound up pulling all of the troops out by the end of 2011 after failing to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq–and not trying very hard to achieve that goal.
What this suggests is that Obama has some flexibility about the pace of withdrawals but he is much more determined to accomplish his larger goal of “ending” wars–meaning ending American involvement in wars even if our enemies benefit from our departure. He achieved the pullout from Iraq before the end of his first term and he seems determined to achieve the pullout from Afghanistan by the end of his second term, presumably so he can brag about how he pulled U.S. troops out of conflict–and never mind that the premature U.S. withdrawal from Iraq precipitated a civil war and forced Obama to send 3,000 troops back. It would be nice if the president were to apply in Afghanistan the lesson of Iraq–namely don’t leave too soon. But he is so stubborn and ideological that he may well be prepared to ignore the weight of evidence and continue with his politically motivated pullout, even if it risks subverting all that U.S. troops have fought to achieve on his watch.