‘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.’ Barack Obama
President Obama, recently, announced that all US forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, just before he leaves office. By taking this action, Obama is finally saying “touch” to a military brass that he believed sandbagged him in upping the quantity of forces needed for the troop surge in Afghanistan when he first took office.
While announcing his plans for a vast drawdown President Obama touched upon what might be the lingering lesson from America’s longest conflict: ‘It’s harder to end wars than to begin them.’ The United States invaded Afghanistan less than one month after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But almost from the beginning, the endgame has been subject to speculation, an ever-changing jumble of speculation that rarely provided much clarity. About 32,000 US troops are in Afghanistan these days, and Obama said that number will drop to 9,800 by the end of this year. Throughout 2015, that number will be cut in half, with the military force being consolidated in the capital of Kabul and at Bagram Air Field, the main US base in the country.
Obama, cleverly, left the number of troops the military wanted ‘about 10,000 troops’ but only for two-and-a-half years and then after that, cut off any possibility of a residual force that could get into trouble there. Thus, Afghanistan will be the second country from which Obama has completely withdrawn US forces recently, Iraq being the first.
Obama should be given credit for these accomplishments, but in both countries, US forces should have been withdrawn much quicker from these losing fiascos. Politically though, as Richard Nixon found out in Vietnam, it is hard for the American public and its political establishment to admit defeat, cut their losses, and bring the long-suffering troops home. It’s a shame that more sons and daughters have to die for a lost cause.
And apparently even some of the troops have been disillusioned with the war effort, for example Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the recently released captive of the Taliban. Some of his fellow soldiers allege that he was disenchanted with the US war effort and simply walked off the job. Furthermore, they say that troops were killed trying to find this “deserter.” Yet, if he did willingly desert his post and his fellow soldiers, the US military had to have known this at the time he wandered off and still made the decision to risk men trying to find him in dangerous territory. So in that event, he could be blamed for deserting but not for getting the added US soldiers killed.
Of course, the large issue is whether Bergdahl was right about the war, and he was. Although Osama bin Laden was killed and the main al Qaeda group has been severely degraded in effectiveness, the United States hardly required a 15-year foreign occupation and failed attempt at remodelling Afghanistan to accomplish these goals.
Republican critics of Obama make several valid points when they question that whether his administration should have given up five nasty senior Taliban members to get Bergdahl back. Governments always crow that they don’t negotiate with terrorists, but then do secretly anyway, as shown during even the macho Reagan administration in the 1980s. Reagan demonstrated that paying ransom for the release of hostages ‘by selling arms to Iran’ usually just gets more people taken hostage, the result after his arms sales. In Obama’s prisoner exchange, the swapping of one enlisted man for five Taliban leaders might cause the Taliban, in the remaining two-and-a-half years of the war, to grab other US soldiers and attempt to make more favourable trades. In addition, after one year in Qatar, US troops may again fight these Taliban leaders on the battlefield. Of course, if Obama had simply done the right thing ‘declaring the war over and beginning an immediate American exit’ US forces would not face this problem. Besides, after war’s end, prisoners are usually freed on both sides.
Republicans also have a valid point that Obama violated the law by failing to notify Congress 30 days prior to releasing prisoners from Guantanamo prison. (The Obama administration claims that the health and well being of the Bergdahl was such that they had to act more quickly than that.) However, as indicated by their adverse reaction to the prisoner exchange and Obama’s plan to remove all forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, many Republicans seem to want to continue this quagmire ad infinitum, wasting even more lives and taxpayers’ dollars.
The administration apparently hopes that this prisoner exchange will open the door to more general negotiations with the Taliban over the fate of Afghanistan. Good luck on that one, since the Taliban won the war a long time ago, and know it doesn’t need to negotiate.
On the other hand, even with Obama laying out a timetable for the drawdown, the eventual result is murky, pointing out the precarious nature of modern warfare. No longer is war fought against a well-defined foreign government. Now it is fought against various guerrilla forces and insurgents; now it is fought against improvised explosive devices (IEDs); now it is an attempt to assess and contain an ever-changing amoeba of an opponent. And the conclusion is as messy as the action in the middle. Moreover, the ability of the Afghan people to seize that responsibility remains in question.
The prisoner exchange would be much more acceptable if the United States was ending the war with the Taliban immediately and withdrawing its forces so they wouldn’t have to fight these Taliban leaders again. Obama is doing the right thing by leaving Afghanistan completely, but just not fast enough.
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire reacted to Obama’s announcement by releasing a joint statement:
‘The president’s decision to set an arbitrary date for the full withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan is a monumental mistake and a triumph of politics over strategy.’
That might or might not be true, but the American public’and certainly the men and women of the military’ are ready for the war to end. Has it been enough? At this point we don’t know. All we know is that it’s more difficult to end wars than to begin them.