For years, the American people have been asking when the war in Afghanistan will end. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama said not for at least two more years.
Obama reaffirmed that he would meet his commitment to remove the last 32,000 combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of the year, a pace that was too slow from the start. But don’t think this is the end of the U.S. military involvement in the Afghan quagmire.
After months of hemming and hawing, Obama also announced that he intends to retain a residual force beyond 2014. According to this plan, 9,800 troops would remain in Afghanistan after 2014, and the number would be cut by half by the end of 2015. By the end of 2016, the force will be cut further, enough to protect the embassy in Kabul and help the Afghans with outfitting their military and other security matters.
It is reasonable to ask how two more years of a sizable U.S. troop presence - which one official said could cost $20 billion in 2015 - will advance a stable Afghanistan in a way that 13 years of war and the 100,000 troops deployed there at the peak were unable to guarantee. Obama insists the objectives will be limited to using special operations forces to disrupt threats posed by al-Qaida and to train and advise Afghan security personnel, pursuits U.S. troops have been deeply engaged in throughout the war.
He does not claim that the residual force will ensure Afghanistan’s success. But administration officials say - and this is the only argument that makes some sense - that a continued, albeit much smaller, U.S. military role would provide a stabilizing bridge at a sensitive time when Afghanistan is choosing a new leader to succeed President Hamid Karzai. There also are doubts about how much Congress and the international community will be willing to invest in Afghanistan if U.S. troops, along with a much smaller contingent of NATO forces, are not in the country.
The election is a cause for some optimism about Afghanistan, which has been burdened by inept and corrupt governance. The top two candidates to succeed Karzai - Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, and Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official - are viewed as competent, pro-Western and stable, unlike Karzai. Both Abdullah and Ghani have also said they would sign a bilateral security agreement that Karzai refused to sign and that Obama insists is a prerequisite for a continued troop presence.
The administration says it has also been encouraged by improvements in the Afghan security forces, which the United States and NATO built and trained over the past decade. Initial news reports suggested the forces contributed substantially to the reasonably peaceful outcome of the first round of presidential voting in April. More than 350,000 military and police units were deployed for the vote. But it was later reported that Afghan news media played down the incidence of violence and many experts still have serious questions about the competency of most Afghan units.
The country’s gross domestic product has grown an average of 9.4 percent annually from 2003 to 2012, and life expectancy has increased by more than 20 years to 62 years. Yet the United States remains trapped there, putting its young men and women in harm’s way.
Obama has dragged out the biggest part of the withdrawal from Afghanistan for two years and now wants to leave more troops there until the end of 2016. His promise to end the war, made years ago, won’t be honored until he’s practically out of office.