President Obama’s decision to slow the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan makes sense, but it encourages little hope.
In a Tuesday appearance with Afghanistan’s new president Ashraf Ghani, Obama announced that he will keep 9,800 military personnel in Afghanistan through the end of this year, suspending his earlier pledge to reduce that number by half by the end of 2015. The president said that the last American troops will leave Afghanistan at the end of 2016, but he also agreed to maintain funding for the embattled nation’s 352,000 police and soldiers through 2017.
Obama has reduced U.S. troops in Afghanistan from a peak of more than 100,000 four years ago. But with the suspension of the draw-down, the United States’ 14-year war is once more extended and its treasure will continue to flow into the channels of Afghan government where money evaporates like rain in an Afghan desert.
Extension was necessary
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Obama had little choice but to back off his more aggressive timetable. The new Afghan president is grateful and cooperative – two qualities absent in his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. Ghani deserves a chance to pursue his goals of creating a military that can stand on its own and to stem the corruption that has siphoned off a huge share of international aid, most of it from the United States.
And there is the problem of ISIS, the rogue Islamic force that could find an ally in Afghanistan should it fall to the Taliban. It’s worth a slower exit if it prevents another broken nation where ISIS can gain ground and support. A stronger Afghanistan could be an important, moderate Islamic bulwark against the spread of ISIS.
In an address to Congress Wednesday, Ghani said ISIS must be challenged by other Muslims. “We are willing to speak truth to terror,” he said.
Still, it is hard to see a longer stay by more U.S. soldiers or more spending as leading to Afghanistan’s emergence as a free, democratic and self-sustaining nation. Time and experience have delivered their verdicts. After 14 years of trying to stabilize Afghanistan, the United States has endured the loss of more than 2,200 servicemen and women and the injury of more than 20,000. It has spent more than $1,000,000,000,000.
Losses grow despite help
For all that investment, the conditions in Afghanistan keep worsening. Last year, the United Nations estimates more than 10,000 civilians died in the conflict between Afghan forces and Taliban insurgents. There is a point where the United States must admit that no amount of support, advice or funding can build Afghanistan into a well-governed, free nation.
However, cutting U.S. losses is not an immediate option. Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya are in varying states of collapse and ISIS is eager to exploit the turmoil and the fill the vacuums of power. The fall of Afghanistan’s government would feed the chaos and expand the suffering.
And there is the prospect, however slim, that more time and money will help Afghanistan under Ghani turn the corner and achieve stability. In that case, Ghani could negotiate a peace agreement with the Taliban from a position of relative strength. That outcome would not justify the price in lives and treasure the United States has invested in a nation thousands of miles from its borders. But it would honor the sacrifice made by U.S. military personnel, many of them based at Fort Bragg, who tried to secure Afghanistan and protect the freedom of its people in America’s longest war.