President Obama is taking a pounding from a wide ideological spectrum of critics, who find his inflexible deadline on U.S. troop withdrawal irresponsible and inexplicable from a national security perspective.
Michael O’Hanlon of the center-left Brookings Institution praises the decision to leave 9,800 troops but excoriates the imposition of a timeline:
For a war in which Americans have been so patient, we risk losing our cool at the end stage of the effort. Almost as soon as that enduring force of 9,800 is postured properly in the country, it will have to plan for its own termination and begin to dismantle its new capabilities. The president’s plan to cut that number of U.S. troops in half in the course of 2015 means that most of these regional bases will be closed almost as soon as they get into their new groove. And the decision to then go to zero American troops, beyond the confines of Kabul proper, by the end of Obama’s presidency will take away drones and commandos that could be used against al Qaeda in Afghanistan or Pakistan, as well as whatever residual other help Afghan forces may still need then.
I would have favored a plan that was roughly twice as slow, and that might have added about 3 percent to total war costs over the period since 2001. Such an approach would have deprived the Taliban of any hope that the next year would be such an abrupt transition period as to throw the government’s forces into disarray. Rather than close all regional American bases in 2015, Obama could have planned to close one or two if possible, and then observe and learn from what ensued. Then, 2016 could have been the main year when these regional locations were truly downsized.
And why the insistence on getting to zero? The United States is still in Korea and Japan and Germany after all these years. Same thing for Bahrain and Qatar and Djibouti. Success rather than a declaration of “mission accomplished” or “mission over” should be our preeminent concern. Obama will be remembered well by history and the American people if he keeps this country safe. He need not worry so much about completely ending a mission that most of the country is not paying much attention to at this point in any event, and that is already costing us far less than it once did.
The reason, of course, is purely partisan politics and ego. Obama said he’d “end” both Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and so he will. Wars don’t end because we leave. They end when one side wins, sometimes when one side gives up. Even worse that the deadline is announcing the deadline now. Again, this is certainly a bone to the depressed left.
James E. Jeffrey and Ronald E. Neumann, writing in The Post, echo O’Hanlon’s concern that the deadline “lacks logic.” They write, “We are committing people to a mission that could require their lives and which is supposedly essential to us, all the while declaring that in less than three years none of this will be in effect. First, this will undercut the desired global impact of the ‘troops stay’ decision by signaling reluctance, not will. Second, the plan in Afghanistan explicitly replicates the Iraq model of putting the training, equipping and counterterrorism functions inside an embassy and an office of military cooperation. This is a route to failure.” Their recommendation is simple but entirely unacceptable to this president: “Change the 2016 deadline to ‘when the end of the mission that these troops have risked their lives for is accomplished.’ ” No, this president doesn’t do open-ended commitments, even if our foes do.
What will the GOP politicians say? Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) blasted the deadline, saying: “The President’s decision to set an arbitrary date for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is a monumental mistake and a triumph of politics over strategy. This is a short-sighted decision that will make it harder to end the war in Afghanistan responsibly.” In pointing out that “wars do not end just because politicians say so,” they underscore how driven by ideology rather than “realism” this president really is.
But what of the 2016 contenders? So far, nothing. Silence. Really, folks — you must have an opinion. If you want a politician whose critical national security decisions are driven by popular opinion, Hillary Clinton is probably your candidate; if you are looking for a reflexive non-interventionist with a penchant for conspiracy theories, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is your man. But who will be the candidate for a responsible foreign policy appropriate for the world as it is, not as we would like it to be? Who will be the candidate, who if elected, would expend political capital because he understands the most critical aspect of the office he is seeking is to be a stalwart commander in chief? We’re waiting.