President Obama has been the most half-hearted war leader the U.S. has had since the days of Woodrow Wilson. He orders troops into battle but imposes artificial, politically motivated restrictions on how many personnel can be sent and for how long. And he always makes it clear that his primary desire is to withdraw, not to win; victory not being a word that he has ever (insofar as I can remember) uttered as a war aim.
His decision to maintain the current level of troops, 9,800, in Afghanistan through the end of 2016 falls squarely into this pattern. He could have simply said that his initial plan to pull out all the troops was ill-advised — as has been made crystal clear by the temporary Taliban capture of Kunduz and as some of us have been arguing from the beginning. He could then have announced that he would maintain at least the current number of troops through the end of his presidency or even send more if military commanders deemed it wise (they do). But no. Instead, he said he was suspending the drawdown and would not pull all the troops out but he still planned to cut force levels to 5,500 before leaving office.
That’s going to be in 15 months. How could anyone — even someone as smart as Barack Obama — possibly know what on the-the-ground conditions in Afghanistan will look like in 15 months? There is simply no way of knowing that. So announcing a priori what the troop number is going to be in early 2017 is utterly disconnected from battlefield reality. It is simply a political gesture so that Obama can leave office claiming that the “tide of war is receding,” even though long experience has taught us, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, that premature U.S. troop withdrawals simply lead to a surge in fighting.
What is most galling about Obama’s calculations is that they are so misguided not just militarily but politically. When he ordered the surge In Afghanistan in 2009, he imposed an 18-month deadline and a cap of 100,000 troops. The left wing of the Democratic Party still howled that it was too much while the right wing of the Republican Party charged it was too little. He satisfied no one. In the end he took the same amount of political heat as if he had sent 150,000 troops without a timeline, but by imposing the troop cap and timeline he severely undercut the ability of the troops to accomplish their mission. In the end, that actually hurts Obama’s legacy. If he had done more, it is just possible Afghanistan would be more stable. As it is, he is going to leave office with a country that is barely staving off collapse.
A similar dynamic has prevailed in Iraq. There was no public clamor to pull U.S. troops out in 2011. Yet he did so anyway after a half-hearted negotiation with Baghdad. That enabled Obama to brag that he had ended George W. Bush’s war, but it’s hard to believe that was a big factor in his defeat of Mitt Romney the following year. Since then, of course, the dreadful consequences of the pullout have been apparent. So now Obama is going to be known as the president whose troop pullout destabilized Iraq and enabled the rise of ISIS.
It’s nice to see him learning something from the Iraq experience — presumably, that has shaped his thinking in delaying the Afghanistan withdrawal. Yet it is amazing that, in the face of so much contrary evidence, he is still unwilling to commit indefinitely to the current troop level or entertain the option of actually increasing the current commitment, which was always lower than our generals had deemed prudent. Unfortunately, the Obama presidency is going to reaffirm the lesson of the Bush presidency between 2003-2006 about how hard it is to be an effective wartime commander-in-chief. At least Bush learned from his mistake when he ordered the surge in 2007. Obama, it appears, will leave office stubbornly clinging to the beliefs that he brought to the presidency.