Later today, President Obama will make a statement about the American future in Afghanistan. According to a description from a senior administration official, Obama “will announce that our combat mission will be over by the end of 2014.”
If a Bilateral Security Agreement is signed with the winner of the upcoming Afghan election, “at the beginning of 2015, we will have 9,800 U.S. service members in different parts of the country, together with our NATO allies and other partners. By the end of 2015, we would reduce that presence by roughly half, consolidating U.S. troops in Kabul and on Bagram Airfield. And one year later, by the end of 2016, we will draw down to a normal Embassy presence with a security assistance office in Kabul, as we have done in Iraq.”
Nine thousand eight hundred troops is still a substantial number; we didn’t reach that much troop strength until we had already been in Afghanistan for nearly a year, and the most we’ve had there at any one time is 100,000 (I detailed that and some other relevant facts on things like spending and casualties here).
It’s clear that one way or another, we’re leaving. President Obama seems determined to bring all our troops home before he leaves office. He’s no doubt acutely aware that even though he campaigned in 2008 on shifting resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, the American public lost their taste for this war some time ago.
However, this will be a gradual departure over the course of a couple of years. Hopefully the troops that remain will be able to help the Afghan government reach the point where it can provide security and stability without us. Hopefully.
But Afghanistan is already the longest war in American history. Come October, Americans will have been fighting and dying there for 13 years. What’s more, we don’t know what will happen if there’s a bloody struggle for power as we begin drawing down. Are the Taliban or some other faction going to target American personnel, on the theory that if they raise the cost of our presence, it will make us more likely to leave completely, thereby making it easier to overthrow the government? It’s always possible. Perhaps we’ll look back and call the end of this year the end of the war, but with thousands of troops remaining there for another two years, it might still look like a war.