Call it “The Forgotten War.” The war in Afghanistan, launched in 2001, now stands as the longest armed conflict in our nation’s history — but based on media coverage and public awareness, Afghanistan is almost an afterthought.
President Obama certainly seems determined to “move on” from Afghanistan. The president formally declared an end to combat operations in Afghanistan in December, and fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops remain in the country today.
The state visit of the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, to Washington last week was welcome, since it brought much-needed attention to the fact that Americans are still serving in Afghanistan. The reality is that we’ve made progress in Afghanistan, even if there’s still a long way to go. But even that limited progress will likely be lost, thanks to Obama’s desire to leave the war and the country behind.
For me, the question of Afghanistan’s future is more than a policy abstraction—it’s deeply personal. From 2006-2007, I served with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division in southeast Afghanistan, leading a platoon in repeated engagements with Taliban fighters along the Pakistan border.
We were deployed 485 days, with one of the highest casualty rates of the entire war. With the Obama administration’s slow-motion retreat from Afghanistan, it’s hard not to look back and wonder what we were fighting for.
Let’s give credit where due. Mr. Ghani said the right things in his visit, expressing gratitude to the United States for our efforts in rebuilding his country and seeking to reassure Americans that he could be a trusted ally. It was a refreshing change from his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, a one-time ally who – largely for domestic political reasons — turned on America.
Mr. Ghani’s visit could be counted a success insofar as it laid the groundwork for a continuing alliance between his country and the United States. And indeed, Obama’s decision to delay the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan was a welcome development.
Unfortunately, it may be that it’s too little, too late, as the slow-motion retreat from Afghanistan continues. In 2009, the president allowed a surge of troops into Afghanistan that ultimately brought the total force to around 100,000. But that number has dropped steadily until we’ve reached the small and shrinking garrison force that remains today.
Last year, many of us were hopeful when the Obama administration signed a bilateral security agreement that would maintain a U.S. presence In Afghanistan. But today that hope seems misplaced, as the president intends to remove all troops from the country by the time he leaves office in 2017.
That means Afghanistan runs the risk of becoming other countries in the Middle East that are now suffering as a result of the president’s determination to disengage. Iraq, where the president withdrew all U.S. forces in 2011, is now in shambles, with Islamic State militants commanding territory and wreaking havoc on the population. Will the Islamic State seek to make common cause with Taliban leaders in an abandoned Afghanistan? Such collaboration is not outside the realm of possibility; in fact, it’s likely emerging already.
The Obama administration’s desire to close the book on Afghanistan only reflects the broader incoherence of the president’s approach to the Middle East. The consequences of that incoherence grow clearer by the day.
Libya and Yemen, both of which could be looked upon as examples of successful engagement only a few years, if not months, ago, are either at or past the point of collapse today. If bold action is not taken soon, both will slip completely into the control of terrorist networks.
Meanwhile, longtime Middle East allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia are treated with contempt and mistrust by a White House that is determined to negotiate with the mullahs of Iran, who are among our nation’s most implacable enemies.
That incoherence stems from the president’s unwillingness to make tough, potentially unpopular decisions—he prefers the safer mode of campaign rhetoric to real executive leadership. Rather than listen to the military commanders who counsel patience, Obama pursues a course of expedience and ad hoc decision-making, rather than careful strategy, in the Middle East. The disastrous results of that approach grow clearer with each passing month.
As an Afghanistan veteran, I would like to think the advent of a new president in the country, and the warm welcome he received in Washington, signals the beginning of a constructive partnership that will build upon past gains. But based upon Obama’s disengagement and willingness to turn his back on allies, that may be too much to hope for.
Sean Parnell, Senior Adviser to Concerned Veterans for America, is a retired U.S. Army Ranger who served as a captain in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. He is the author of “Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan.”