Calling the approaching end of America’s combat mission in Afghanistan an “enormous achievement,” President Obama on Wednesday seemed intent on shifting the burden squarely onto the Afghans and putting Washington’s longest war farther in the nation’s rearview mirror.
“Our reduced presence there allows us to more effectively address emerging threats in the Middle East and North Africa,” Obama told the graduating class of West Point cadets, the first since Sept. 11, 2001, that is unlikely to see combat in the near future.
Left largely unmentioned were the myriad goals the United States set out to accomplish in Afghanistan and, to varying degrees, is now quietly abandoning. While the president said future U.S. military engagements should avoid creating more enemies than they eliminate, he neglected to mention the formidable strength of the Afghan insurgency as the United States prepares to downsize from 32,800 troops to 9,800 by the end of the year, and then to nearly none by the time he leaves office.
A small but consequential cell of al-Qaeda fighters also remains operational in northeastern Afghanistan despite a years-long, dogged effort by the United States to completely dislodge the group founded by Osama bin Laden.
Al-Qaeda’s relationship with local factions of the Taliban “remains intact and remains an area of concern,” according to the Pentagon’s latest report to Congress on the state of the Afghan war. The report was released last month. The Haqqani network, a faction of the Taliban that the Defense Department calls “the most virulent strain of the insurgency,” serves as a “critical enabler” of al-Qaeda, straddling the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Afghan insurgent groups continue to operate with the acquiescence of segments of the Pakistani government, U.S. defense officials say. The prospect of a negotiated settlement to the conflict — something Washington explored by allowing the Taliban to open a political office in Qatar — appears entirely doomed.
David Sedney, who served as the Pentagon’s top official overseeing policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan until last year, said the Taliban has proved to be a remarkably resilient foe.
“Their core leadership is just as strong as they were before,” Sedney said in an interview Wednesday. “Their funding has gotten better because they are getting more and more opium profits by seriously taxing every stage.”
Despite a U.S. investment of nearly $7 billion to combat the opium trade and deprive insurgents of drug proceeds, Afghanistan’s poppy industry is thriving, according to the latest assessment of U.S. defense officials, who said in the report that “insurgent penetration of that market is extensive and expanding.”
The establishment of Afghanistan’s 340,600-strong security forces is arguably the U.S.-led international coalition’s signature achievement. Although they remain stymied by weak logistics systems, nepotism and widespread corruption, the Afghan army and police have in some ways exceeded expectations on the battlefield over the past year. They were instrumental in ensuring a relatively safe voting environment in April during the first round of Afghanistan’s presidential election, which was hailed as a success.
But as a period of political transition in the country begins, Sedney and other former senior officials involved in Afghanistan policy see a danger of disengaging too quickly.
“We’ve built up lots of militaries that have ended up in ways that are not consistent with our values, and the Afghan military is at high risk of that,” Sedney said. “The Afghan military going bad is just as dangerous for us as the possibility of the Taliban taking over.”
Retired Adm. James G. Stavridis, who played a leading role in Afghan policy as the top commander of NATO forces from 2009 to 2013, said that a smooth political transition in Afghanistan could make the Obama administration’s withdrawal time frame viable. But he said he was uncomfortable over the risk inherent in the administration’s timeline.
“I think it’s quite possible that by the end of next year we could be in a position to really turn this over,” said Stavridis, who is now the dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School. “But it’s going to be risky. I would have preferred a conditions-based concept.”
On Wednesday, Obama reflected on the West Point class of 2009, which he addressed soon after ordering a troop surge in Afghanistan. Four of the service members in attendance were later killed and several were wounded.
“I believe America’s security demanded those deployments,” Obama said. “But I am haunted by those deaths. I am haunted by those wounds.”
Across the country in Texas, Dustin Navarro, 32, a former Army officer who graduated from West Point in 2004 and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, also found himself reflecting on the war. He wondered whether the United States would have left a similarly uncertain situation if it had pulled out troops in 2004 rather than a decade later.
“If you look at the incremental gains we made there over the past 10 years and compare that against dollars spent and lives lost on our side and the Afghan side, do we really feel what we got over that period was worth the cost?” he said. “I don’t know. My personal thought is maybe not.”