The President’s announcement of a residual force in Afghanistan of 9, 800 U.S. troops after the end of this year is mixed news at best. While the number is just adequate to stave off the worst of military disasters, the associated timeline may create a disaster all its own: the year’s end 9,800 troops would be halved in 2015, and drawn sharply down to perhaps a token few hundred by the end of 2016 – a security assistance presence similar to our tiny, U.S. embassy-based military effort in Iraq today.
Much like the President Obama’s “Afghan surge” announcement in December 2009, this latest decision on Afghanistan tries to have it both ways: it provides roughly the number of troops requested by the military up front, but at the same time announces a steep and rapid drawdown plan to pull virtually all of those troops out over the next two years. While the number for next year seems about right, the publicly announced speedy departure plan for those troops will now unquestionably sow doubt among American friends and Afghan supporters. At the same time, this withdrawal timeline will tacitly encourage resilient Taliban and al Qaeda factions that are seeking a long-term victory.
But here at home, the biggest and – for the President – the most important takeaway from today’s Rose Garden announcement will be the certainty that by the end of 2016, America’s longest war will truly be over. After 13 years and thousands of U.S. casualties, hundreds of billions of dollars spent, and wholly inconclusive results, today’s speech marks the end. Few Americans will mourn this war’s passing.
And that handful of U.S. troops at our embassy in Kabul 30 months from now may only be enough to watch the meltdown of Afghan security forces – and perhaps their government – as international funding inevitably dries up when the last significant numbers of western troops fully withdraw. This sad epitaph on a long and bloody war now looks increasingly likely.