When President Obama swept into office in a blaze of hopeful promises, there was one area of policy where it was immediately clear he only intended more of the same: the war in Afghanistan.
In contrast with his vaunted rejection of the Iraq war, Obama made Afghanistan his own personal project from the get-go, declaring Iraq a “distraction” from the dubiously attainable goal of eliminating terrorism in the graveyard of empires.
Afghanistan was “the right battlefield,” Obama said, the war that “has to be won.”
In retrospect, his pre-presidency plans for accomplishing that win were fairly vague. Mostly he had ideas for throwing more American troops at the problem, forcing him to make what was (for him) the somewhat surprising argument that his predecessor’s mistake in Afghanistan had been excessive caution.
Overall, one thing was clear: Obama believed the situation in Afghanistan needed “urgent” attention, and he intended to give it.
And indeed he did. By Politifact’s tally, Obama fulfilled (or partially fulfilled) all his major 2008 pledges about Afghanistan but one: ending the war in 2014. Despite all the escalation, all the expanded regional focus, all the drones and dollars, the war that “has to be won” is no closer to completion than when Obama took office.
If anything, a plausible end date looks even more remote. Obama’s parting gift to America seems to be an never-ending subscription to his favorite war.
After five broken promises of withdrawal, there are presently nearly 10,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan—plus three times as many contractors, a source of labor the president conveniently doesn’t have to mention in the troop counts he shares with the public. For each and every one of those soldiers, taxpayers drop almost $4 million per year, no small expense for a country $19 trillion in debt.
Now, with the Taliban resurgent and ISIS moving in, the Obama administration has begun to speak of Afghanistan as a “generational thing,” an “enduring commitment” like the long-term American presence in South Korea and Japan—but a lot bigger, and with active fighting. While once Obama diagnosed the problem in Afghanistan as too few American troops and too passive a strategy, now it seems he’s decided to institutionalize exactly that sort of low-key (yet incredibly expensive) occupation—forever.
He justifies this plan with remarkably Orwellian language. Obama does “not support the idea of endless war,” he insisted the last time he blew past a troop withdrawal deadline, and tens of thousands of troops and contractors remaining in Afghanistan does not change the alleged fact that “America’s combat mission in Afghanistan [is] over.”
In other words, endless war isn’t endless if I do it. And combat isn’t combat if I say it’s not.
Of course, common sense suggests this is nonsense, and no president can take credit for “ending” a war while actively perpetuating it. That approach only serves to distract voters’ attention from a conflict that’s been neither cheap nor effective—but is still very much an ongoing mess. “The quagmire in Afghanistan is already deeper than ‘Nam ever was,” said one retired Marine general who served in Vietnam, “and will only get worse.” Pretending it no longer exists is not the solution.
Common sense also dictates that a generational commitment to Afghanistan is neither feasible nor prudent.
Eternal war is no panacea for terrorism; if anything, the last decade and a half indicate it is more cause than cure. Afghanistan—where one study found that as recently as 2010, 90 percent of military-aged men had never heard of 9/11 and thus had no idea why the U.S. invaded their homeland—is no exception to this rule. Obama’s interminable intervention engenders local anger and fuels terrorist recruiting, thus ironically making America less safe.
“By refusing to end the war in Iraq,” Obama said in 2007, “President Bush is giving the terrorists what they really want, and what the Congress voted to give them in 2002: a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.”
Nine years later, the same can be said of Obama’s own pet war in Afghanistan, where the president has made an irresponsible promise he’ll never personally have to keep.