Obama’s Legacy and the “Endless” War

The president had hoped to be known for having ended both of the shooting wars that he inherited. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

President Obama speaks about Afghanistan troop withdrawals in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Thursday.
Pool AFP/Getty
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Oct. 15, 2015, 2:14 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s de­cision to halt the planned with­draw­al of Amer­ic­an troops from Afgh­anistan is a re­mind­er that wars rarely are as neat as cam­paign prom­ises, par­tic­u­larly when the bat­tle­field is the hos­tile ter­rain of Afgh­anistan, a land where for­eign in­vaders have found it chal­len­ging to main­tain mil­it­ary oc­cu­pa­tions.

Get­ting out al­ways has been messy there, as the 19th-cen­tury Brit­ish and 20th-cen­tury So­vi­ets dis­covered. There are clear dif­fer­ences, though, for 21st-cen­tury Amer­ica, dif­fer­ences noted by the pres­id­ent in his somber re­marks in the Roosevelt Room on Thursday. As he stated, the bulk of the U.S. troops have long since gone home, Amer­ic­an cas­u­al­ties have dwindled, com­bat op­er­a­tions have be­come the re­spons­ib­il­ity of Afghan forces, and a demo­crat­ic­ally elec­ted Afghan gov­ern­ment has asked for the delay in the fi­nal draw-down.

None of that has shiel­ded the pres­id­ent from cri­ti­cism from both his right and his left. House Speak­er John Boehner ac­cused the pres­id­ent of let­ting “cam­paign prom­ises and par­tis­an agen­das” set his war policy, re­flect­ing the Re­pub­lic­an be­lief that too many troops have been pulled out too fast, al­low­ing ter­ror­ist gains. On the left, the feel­ing is the pul­lout has been too little. “Obama Adds End­less Afghan War to Leg­acy” was the head­line Thursday in Com­mon Dreams, a pro­gress­ive pub­lic­a­tion.

At the White House, they know that the neat leg­acy Obama’s team had yearned for now is un­at­tain­able. They know that the first sen­tence in the his­tory books will be that he was the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent. But they hoped the second sen­tence would be that he ended the two shoot­ing wars that he in­her­ited from Pres­id­ent George W. Bush. Thursday’s an­nounce­ment changes that sen­tence.

If that is dis­ap­point­ing to Obama, he didn’t show it Thursday, flatly deny­ing that it is a set­back and cast­ing it as a not-sur­pris­ing re­as­sess­ment of the situ­ation on the ground in Afgh­anistan. “This de­cision is not dis­ap­point­ing,” he in­sisted, adding, “This isn’t the first time those ad­just­ments have been made; this prob­ably won’t be the last.”

What’s im­port­ant, he said, is that the United States proves to the Afghans that “we’re go­ing to be a steady part­ner for them.” Left un­said was an ac­know­ledge­ment that the Pentagon nev­er thought it wise to re­duce the Amer­ic­an com­mit­ment so deeply that only enough troops to pro­tect the em­bassy re­mained. Afgh­anistan is just too crit­ic­al to the fight against ter­ror­ism and too much Amer­ic­an blood has been shed to risk a takeover of Afghan cit­ies by either the Taliban or the more ex­trem­ist Is­lam­ic State.

This is a re­versal of a spe­cif­ic timetable once out­lined by the pres­id­ent. But it is not a be­tray­al of cam­paign prom­ises. In fact, Obama has con­sist­ently cham­pioned the U.S. mis­sion in Afgh­anistan even as he was at­tack­ing Bush’s 2003 in­va­sion of Ir­aq and the res­ult­ing war there. In the 2002 speech in which he an­nounced his op­pos­i­tion to war in Ir­aq, he im­pli­citly sup­por­ted go­ing in­to Afgh­anistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden. “I was a strong sup­port­er of the war in Afgh­anistan,” he re­called later about that speech.

Then, in his 2008 cam­paign, he prom­ised, “When I am pres­id­ent, we will wage the war that has to be won. … There must be no safe haven for ter­ror­ists who threaten Amer­ica.” He pledged to send more com­bat bri­gades to Afgh­anistan. He kept that prom­ise less than a month after his in­aug­ur­a­tion. In of­fice, one of his most im­port­ant na­tion­al se­cur­ity de­cisions in 2009 was to send an ad­di­tion­al 30,000 troops there. Re­peatedly, he cast Ir­aq as a dis­trac­tion from Afgh­anistan, stat­ing it “de­prived (U.S. troops) of the sup­port they need and de­serve.”

Now, his latest de­cision is very much in keep­ing with his 2008 cam­paign prom­ise to “fin­ish the job against al-Qaida in Afgh­anistan.”

This just isn’t the way that the pres­id­ent thought he would get there. Or the timetable he thought he would fol­low. Run­ning for reelec­tion in 2012, he hoped to “end the war in Afgh­anistan in 2014.” Now, he words it more care­fully, stat­ing that “Amer­ica’s com­bat mis­sion” there did, in­deed, con­clude in 2014. But he has come to re­cog­nize that he can­not re­spons­ibly end U.S. in­volve­ment in the war as he had hoped.

It’s not a con­clu­sion he wanted to reach. Nor is it one that gives him the de­sired, neat leg­acy. But it is one he reached after meet­ing with top mil­it­ary com­mand­ers to “con­tinu­ally as­sess, hon­estly, the situ­ation on the ground to de­term­ine where our strategy is work­ing and where we may need great­er flex­ib­il­ity.” In the end, that is what a com­mand­er in chief is sup­posed to do—even if it messes with his polit­ic­al leg­acy.

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