President Obama announced yesterday that the United States plans to only have an embassy presence in Afghanistan by 2016 -- the level of involvement the United States currently has in Iraq. By the end of this year, he wants to drop the military presence in the country to 9,800, officially ending our combat presence there, but essentially providing the number of troops requested by the military.
"The bottom line is it's time to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq," Obama said. "Americans have learned that it's harder to end wars than it is to begin them. Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century -- not through signing ceremonies but through decisive blows against our adversaries, transitions to elected governments, security forces who are trained to take the lead and ultimately full responsibility."
A reduction of the size requested by the president would send 22,200 troops out of the country. A reduction of that size would also mark the first time that Obama has not been commander-in-chief of an active combat presence abroad, and a substantial drop from the 100,000 troops that were there in 2010.
However, those 9,800 troops hinge on whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai will sign a security agreement allowing American troops to stay beyond the end of combat. He has been reticent, saying that it is time for Afghan troops to take charge. The fact that troops will be leaving Afghanistan was nonnegotiable, but the fate of those 9,800 remaining soldiers is still very much up in the air.
Many Republicans met Obama's announcement with displeasure — not because of the desire to keep troops in Afghanistan, but for the timetable to get them out of there.
"The President came into office wanting to end the wars he inherited. But wars do not end just because politicians say so," said Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in a statement.
Regardless of how many tens of thousands of U.S. troops leave Afghanistan this year, the relative quiet, the signatureless denouement described by Obama above, that will likely greet the withdrawal here are a sign of how much politics have changed in the past decade. In December 2005, before the midterm elections, 22 percent of the country thought war or the situation in Iraq was the biggest problem facing the country. Six percent said unemployment or jobs, while 12 percent found dissatisfaction with government to be the biggest problem plaguing the country. In early May, 0 percent of Americans listed the situation in the Middle East to be the most important problem. Twenty percent found unemployment to be the most important problem, and 19 percent found dissatisfaction with government to be the biggest problem. Casualties from Afghanistan happen infrequently, but are more likely to be severe, but we rarely hear about them in the news. Thoughts about the war have vacated our minds, replaced with worries about paychecks and debt and political stalemate.
The evidence about America's distaste for war goes on and on. In January 2014, 52 percent of Americans thought that U.S. efforts in Afghanistan had mostly failed. In December 2013, 82 percent of Americans opposed the war in Afghanistan, according to CNN polling. Eighty-three percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of the war this year, according to Gallup. Forty-nine percent of respondents to a February Gallup survey said the war was a mistake.
Although the country hasn't paid attention to the war, and international politics have mostly moved on to other arenas, 55 percent of Americans polled in a December 2013 ABC News/Washington Post survey would like to keep some troop presence in Afghanistan, as Obama has recommended.
As Afghanistan fades from America's collective consciousness, it looms in the minds of the 22,000-plus soldiers about to return from duty. Many of the soldiers are wounded, physically or mentally. As one veteran told the Washington Post earlier this year, "I left the war zone, but the war zone never left me."
Other soldiers wish they could go back, or at least miss the excitement they found in the Middle East. A soldier profiled by Eli Saslow earlier this year wrote to a fellow soldier from his home in Wyoming, “Welcome back to the life of petty nonsense." Soldiers are far more likely to say the war was worth fighting than the public. However, these nostalgic, past-plagued or proud soldiers are mostly insulated from the public that wants to forget the war, as data from a Kaiser Family Foundation/Washington Post poll from earlier this year showed. Those two different story lines of the war will be able to continue as the war draws down unscathed.
The portrait of public opinions of the war in Afghanistan grows even more complicated when you factor in the opinions of those who consider the battlefield their home turf. Fifty-five percent of Afghans said they were suffering in 2013 — the highest number polled by Gallup across the globe. In 2010, 12 percent of Afghans said they were thriving. In 2013, 0 percent did. Eighteen percent of Afghans are confident in the honesty of their recent elections. The country's confidence in America's troops had been dropping for years.
Today, President Obama will delve deeper into his future plans for dealing with al-Qaeda. Given the complex and fractured views of the many constituencies that have opinions of or stakes in American foreign policy, it is impossible he will please everyone — and is far more likely to displease most, if they care to pay attention.