Nearly six years into his presidency, one would hope that President Obama would have learned not to make promises he can’t keep. Yet there was Obama in the final days of December to proclaim "the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion."
Obama’s comments came as the combat role of the U.S. military in Afghanistan ended with a ceremony in Kabul. U.S. military personnel have been literally pouring out of Afghanistan for the last 12 months; a year ago there were 38,000, and now only 10,800 remain. Their role now is to assist the country’s military and police forces with counterterrorism and training.
After 13 years and more than 2,200 dead U.S. service members, it’s about time.
Yet the war in Afghanistan should not be viewed in isolation. It was one front of many in an ongoing war with Islamist terrorism. Understanding that is crucial not only to the future stability of Afghanistan, but for U.S. national security as threats like al-Qaida continue to morph into new terrorist franchises such as the Islamic State and Boko Haram.
This is why Obama’s wish to have all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the time he leaves office in 2017 is in doubt. Terrorists will likely have other plans. Note that we’re already back to combat missions in Iraq and Syria with our aircraft.
"I’d say the mission is done, but not accomplished at the level … we or the Afghans had wanted," said Thomas E. Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghan Studies at the University of Nebraska in Omaha.
A former United Nations specialist, Gouttierre has had first-hand experience tracking Osama bin Laden and Taliban intelligence. In the fitful days following the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the State Department was constantly ringing him. Gouttierre continues to act as a consultant on Afghanistan, including work with the United States Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
"We never did really have a strategic plan focused on Afghanistan," he said.
Here’s the result: Afghanistan is a sieve for U.S. taxpayer dollars. SIGAR has pointed out that there is no central database to track contract spending for reconstruction and stabilization efforts, an effort that has already been pledged $104 billion. The use of contractors is high for many of these programs; at times, they outnumber U.S. military personnel. That’s fertile soil for corruption, waste and mismanagement.
"Every one of SIGAR’s quarterly reports to Congress has highlighted this threat — from the looting of the Kabul Bank and the failures of Afghanistan’s attorney general to prosecute (corrupt) senior officials, to the illegal land seizures and endemic extortion of ordinary Afghans for everyday services," a December 2014 SIGAR report stated.
In October, SIGAR reported that many of the efforts to help with irrigation, roads and agricultural assistance for Afghans inadvertently helped cultivate opium harvests. Poppy growing and heroin production are hitting record levels. This is in spite of the multibillion dollar efforts in Afghanistan as part of the U.S. war on drugs.
Don’t assume the Taliban has been eradicated either. They’ve resurged in some areas of the country in recent months. More than 5,000 Afghan soldiers and police died fighting them in 2014.
And yet there are positive signs as well. Gouttierre praises our military for the work they did to stabilize the country. Three presidential elections have been held in Afghanistan, and support for the U.S. presence there is high, especially among young people who hold little regard for warlords.
The U.S. will surely continue to battle insurgents around the globe and will need to help stabilize countries much as we continue to do in Afghanistan. Gouttierre has long argued that the U.S. has a moral obligation to Afghans. After all, they fought the Soviet Union for ten years, equipped and financed by the U.S. and its allies.
When the Soviets finally pulled out of Afghanistan, the U.S. didn’t help the country rebuild. That left an unstable country, fertile ground for the Taliban to take hold.
"We don’t generally learn from our foreign policy failings," he said. "But I hope that we have learned from that."