Halted American Troop Withdraw in Afghanistan: A Response to a Confused Identity Abroad

On 16 October, President Barack Obama announced that the United States would be extending its military engagement in Afghanistan by lessening the cutbacks in combat personnel that were scheduled for the next few years. Saying that although he continues to oppose the idea of “endless war,” President Obama went on to say that it was in the best interest of the United State to continue to support the Afghan military in its operations against the Taliban forces.  “While America’s combat mission in Afghanistan may be over,” stated Obama, “our commitment to Afghanistan and its people endures… I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again.”[1] By making this choice, President Obama will leave office without delivering on his promise of concluding George W. Bush’s military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. This decision, along with the moderate multilateral response to the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, continues to underline the current identity crisis in American foreign policy.

Image courtesy of Staff Sgt. William Tremblay, U.S. Army/Released © 2010, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Staff Sgt. William Tremblay, U.S. Army/Released © 2010, some rights reserved.

Even after the long 14 years of American engagement in military operations in Afghanistan, recent events show that the deployment of troops is a highly futile act in the long term. Currently, the Taliban are “spread through more parts of the country than at any point since 2001.”[1] In addition, “last month they scored their biggest victory of the war, seizing the northern city of Kunduz and holding it for more than two weeks before pulling back.”[2] What seems to be abundantly clear, then, is the fact that Afghan forces are still not nearly strong enough to wage a winning war against the Taliban. In this sense, President Obama seems to be in the right, forgoing politics and keeping 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through most of 2016 and then lowering the number to only 5,500 before the end of his presidency. Unfortunately, these efforts will make little impact. The Taliban has obviously remained extremely capable of waging and winning a war with Afghan forces, as has been shown by the recent capture of Kunduz. Rather than additional military training and support, Afghan forces truly need American combat forces to push back. With the war weariness in the domestic United States and the continuing brutality of ISIS abroad, this seems more unlikely than ever to come to fruition.

President Obama’s decision to keep military forces in Afghanistan highlights the growing foreign policy identity crisis under way in the United States. After what has been seemingly endless engagement in frustrating wars in the Middle East, the American people feel as though no progress has been made on any front. According to a Gallup poll, “Americans’ support for the United States’ taking military action against the Syrian government for its suspected use of chemical weapons is on track to be the lowest for any intervention Gallup has asked about in the last 20 years. Thirty-six percent of Americans favor the U.S. taking military action in order to reduce Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons. The Majority- 51%- oppose such action, while 13% are unsure.”[3] A feeling of hopelessness seems to pervade American conflicts in the Middle East as a whole, with the recent re-deployment of military advisors to Iraq seen as stark evidence of this for many. On the policy and structural side, however, it seems that the United States is trying to continue its “world-policing” ways of decades past. Leaving open-ended commitments to Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan during the presidency that was supposed to end these type of engagements shows the current disconnect between the wishes of the American people and foreign policy mandates that were put in place after the Cold War.

Because of this disparity between the wishes of the American people and the existing foreign policy structures, recent decisions involving international affairs have seemingly taken a turn for the moderate. President Obama has coordinated a safe, multilateral approach to fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria by carrying out airstrikes against key targets and training the Iraqi army. These approaches, however, do not seem to have eased the situation in Syria whatsoever. Thousands of Syrian refugees flood over the borders and ISIS continues to hold ground. In addition, with the involvement of Russia in combat missions on the ground, the United States seems to be in an even weaker place to push for the potential changes that it would like to see within the war-torn state. The thought process on the redeployment of troops in Afghanistan seems to run in the same vein. Less of a harsh troop withdrawal will hopefully allow the Afghan army to get more training and prevent a military vacuum after the last U.S. troops leave. Make no mistake, however, this choice by the Obama administration will make no difference in the long term future of the state. The Taliban still currently hold power in much of Afghanistan and will certainly prove to be formidable, if not unbeatable, enemies for the Afghan army when the final U.S. soldiers leave the country. In the end, the extension of military operations in Afghanistan is a stalling tactic that has been born out of the at-odds factors of post-Cold War foreign policy and current public opinion.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/16/world/asia/obama-troop-withdrawal-afghanistan.html

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/16/world/asia/obama-troop-withdrawal-afghanistan.html

[3] http://www.gallup.com/poll/164282/support-syria-action-lower-past-conflicts.aspx