The next commander in chief will not have to oversee a war in Afghanistan. At least that’s the plan announced Tuesday by President Barack Obama, who said that the combat mission will be over by the end of this year and that all U.S. troops will leave by the end of 2016.
After 13 years, declaring a date certain for a complete withdrawal is justified. After the 9/11 terror attacks, it was wholly necessary to go after al-Qaida and its Taliban allies. But the reasons to keep fighting have become less and less clear as the years dragged on, as public support tanked and as casualties mounted – nearly 2,200 Americans killed, plus some 1,100 from U.S. allies.
“Americans have learned it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them,” Obama said from the Rose Garden, just back from a surprise Memorial Day weekend visit to troops in Afghanistan.
The pullout could be even quicker if the next president of Afghanistan does not sign a security agreement with the United States. Both remaining candidates in the runoff election set for June 14 have pledged to do so, however, upon replacing the corrupt and unreliable Hamid Karzai.
Under Obama’s plan, about 9,800 of the 32,000 American troops now in Afghanistan would stay past this year, but only to train the Afghan military and to support counterterrorism operations from bases in the capital of Kabul and at Bagram Air Base. By the end of 2015, the U.S. troop total would be cut in half. And by the end of 2016, the only American military presence would be at the U.S. Embassy and a security assistance office.
A phased withdrawal is the best way to retain the hard-won gains in Afghanistan. The president dutifully recited those accomplishments – crippling al-Qaida, preventing further attacks and helping Afghans start building a democracy – before saying it’s time to bring America’s longest war to a “responsible end.”
“This is how wars end in the 21st century,” he added. “We have to recognize that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one.”
Those are not inspiring words, but they are realistic.
Obama also spoke truth when he declared that it’s “time to turn the page” on a U.S. foreign policy focused on Afghanistan and Iraq, and to shift attention to new terrorist hot spots – in North Africa, for instance – and to broader priorities around the globe.
Today, the president plans to lay out a more detailed foreign policy blueprint during a commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., where early in his first term, he announced a troop surge in Afghanistan that pushed the total force past 100,000.
This is overdue as well.
Too much lately, Obama has seemed to careen from one crisis to the next – the Arab Spring, Libya, Ukraine. His much-touted pivot to Asia has largely stalled. He needs to offer a clear vision of how America can make the world safer and freer during the rest of his second term.
On his watch, Obama ended a war of choice in Iraq and plans to end a war of necessity in Afghanistan. Those are significant milestones. Yet if he wants to leave an international legacy worthy of his Nobel Peace Prize, he must make much more progress, and he is running out of time.