Whoops, He Did It Again: Obama’s ISIS Lesson for Afghanistan

June 24, 2014

Washington has descended into a familiar battle: the blame game. The issue is Iraq and a major territory grab by the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), but that is unfortunately secondary to the brawl itself. Many Republicans, foremost among them Sen. John McCain, lambast President Barack Obama for failing to keep American troops in Iraq beyond the end of 2011. The president’s defenders counter that America was treaty bound to withdraw its troops by December 2011, and efforts to negotiate a new arrangement foundered on the realities of Iraq’s internal politics.

Whether or not an American military contingent could have been left behind, there are people on both sides of this debate who look at Iraq today and agree that the situation might be better if there were some American troops in country who had been tasked with counter-terrorism, security force assistance, and coordinating continued air support to the Iraqi Security Forces.

In a few years, whoever occupies the White House might wish he or she still had the same in Afghanistan. However, under Present Obama’s recently announced plan, American military forces will be completely withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, leaving behind only a miniscule presence at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

This isn’t the first time that President Obama announced a premature, non-conditions based withdrawal deadline from Afghanistan. Unfortunately, he hasn’t learned from past experience. In his December 2009 speech at West Point, Obama not only announced the Afghan surge of 30,000 American troops, but also signaled when it would end: beginning July 2011 security responsibility would be transitioned to the Afghans. That may have been a sensible goal, but announcing it to the world—and thereby signaling an unconditional withdrawal at a specific date—was foolish.

As it turned out, I was working for the Department of Defense in Afghanistan in 2011. My job was, in essence, to talk to Afghans from all walks of life in the southern province of Helmand—from farmers to shopkeepers to soldiers. In every conversation about the course of the conflict, Afghans dreaded the drawdown of Western troops that would follow the end of the surge. Even Afghans who were otherwise very critical of ISAF operations expressed that sentiment. Why? Many of them remembered the chaotic aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal that saw their country descend into civil war. While they certainly had grievances against Western troops, very few Afghans I spoke with wanted those troops to quit the country entirely.

Obama may not have anticipated the impact of his words, but he certainly was briefed on their pernicious effect. And yet, here we are again, with a new deadline set.

The effect of this new announcement is far more deleterious than its 2009 predecessor. This is, first and foremost, due to the simple fact that the U.S. presence will, by the end of 2016, be effectively zero rather than the tens of thousands that remained in the summer and fall of 2011 after the transition as underway. The Taliban now know they can wait things out. There is no need for them to reach a political agreement with the Americans. Factions in the Afghan government and security forces now understand even more than before that they better hedge their bets and explore deals with the other side. This realization was undoubtedly behind many of the “green-on-blue” attacks that saw Afghan soldiers and police killing NATO soldiers. And, more significantly, it has driven a more consequential rise in “green-on-green” attacks in which Afghan soldiers and police kill their comrades, usually right before defecting.

As Obama and his national security team watch Iraq crumble, they would do well to reconsider their unconditional 2016 deadline. It would not be unreasonable for the United States to leave behind a small footprint of less than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future to focus on counter-terrorism, security force assistance, and the continued provision of air support to the Afghan National Security Forces. Even after 2016, Washington needs to ensure that the Taliban does not give shelter and aid to terrorists with transnational ambitions. Indeed, this gets more urgent by the day as the group reclaims parts of Afghanistan’s rural south and east. For a number of reasons, a small but capable troop presence is the best means of doing this. It provides political leverage, deterrence, and a hammer. And as my friend Tom Lynch explains, there might be other benefits to having troops in the region.

Without troops left behind, America’s next president, whoever she or he may be, might confront an ISIS-style bind in the Hindu Kush.


Ryan Evans is the founder and editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks and the assistant director of the Center for the National Interest.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army