Four and a half years ago, President Obama made a speech at West Point in which he announced an escalation of the war effort in Afghanistan. “After 18 months,” he declared, “our troops will begin to come home.”
I sipped the Kool-Aid at the time but left a lot of it in the glass.
I wrote that it was inconceivable that the “cautious, thoughtful leader who presciently opposed the Iraq war would, after months of painstaking review of the situation in Afghanistan, decide on a course that leads America to military, financial and political disaster.”
But I continued with more skepticism.
“The Obama administration,” I wrote, “would have us believe that in all of a year and a half, tens of thousands of U.S. troops will be mobilized and sent to Afghanistan, where they will join other forces and in that time deny al-Qaeda a haven, reverse the Taliban’s momentum and reduce its ability to overthrow the Afghanistan government, strengthen the capacity of Afghan security forces so they can fend for themselves and stabilize neighboring Pakistan.”
And here we are today.
This week, Obama announced during a White House Rose Garden appearance that “now we’re finishing the job we started.” He said U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be greatly reduced by the end of this year, and our military commitment will be over by the end of 2016.
The president wasn’t able to say that al-Qaeda has been eliminated, but he could claim, correctly, that “significant blows” have been struck against the group’s leadership. He could also note that Osama bin Laden is no more and assert that Afghanistan is no longer a haven for al-Qaeda or the Taliban. With the help of U.S. training and equipment, Obama said, Afghan security forces have assumed the lead for combat operations and have accepted responsibility for their country’s security next year.
U.S. troops are still there — patrolling cities, launching airstrikes. Not for long, the president promised this week.
But even if — as the administration expects — the Afghan government signs a bilateral security agreement with the United States, we will remain there. Our presence will be smaller — from a peak of 100,000 to nearly 10,000 after the end of our combat mission — but we will still be there.
America’s longest war. More than 2,100 U.S. military dead, thousands wounded, many thousands more scarred for life. Tens of billions of dollars spent.
Yet this conflict is not ending in disaster, unlike the debacle of Iraq, which is steadily descending into civil war. Afghanistan, by most reasonable accounts, was a war of necessity. Al-Qaeda jihadists based there started it on Sept. 11, 2001. We finished it, killing their leader, chasing them almost completely out of Afghanistan, pushing back their Taliban protectors and giving the Afghan people a chance to run their own homeland. But for Obama’s critics, nothing he does will ever be good enough. Five years ago, national security think-tankers were banging their spoons for escalation, Republicans were demanding that Obama give the generals everything they want, and conservatives were calling him a ditherer, not a doer.
Nothing in the intervening five years has changed their minds. His 2009 announcement of a military surge, the death of Osama bin Laden and the routing of al-Qaeda leadership, the upcoming democratic transfer of power — the first in Afghanistan’s history: None of that mattered if it meant giving credit to Barack Obama.
Before the president had shaken the first West Point graduate’s hand this week, the critics were baying. Wrote leading Obama-slammer Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Twitter: “President Obama is not ending wars, he’s losing them.”
Nothing short of a U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, America bombing Damascus and Tehran and the deployment of U.S. troops to the Ukraine-Russia border will satisfy those who take issue with everything our president does or does not do. While legitimate questions about U.S. foreign policy are being raised responsibly in some quarters, there is no winning over the Republican attack dogs.
Not when all they will settle for is Obama doing it their way.
They refuse to accept a president who is cautious and thoughtful and all too aware, as Obama said this week, that every problem related to peace and freedom does not have a military solution.
“Tough talk often draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans,” he said. So true.
His call for a Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion to help train and advise partner countries facing al-Qaeda affiliates and extremists deserves congressional support.
So, too, does Obama’s declaration to take direct action when necessary to protect the homefront.
The critics will take issue with our president whatever he decides. But, for me, it comes down to this: In whose hands would I entrust the fate of my children and grandchildren — Barack Obama or the likes of Lindsey Graham?
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