Last year Foreign Affairs ran a special section on President Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy. The section included essays on the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, terrorism, Europe, Asia, and a pair of dueling assessments of the Administration’s overall performance. Curiously, the entire section was almost entirely silent about Obama’s single largest, longest, and costliest foreign policy initiative: the war in Afghanistan.
The war in Afghanistan is, frankly, boring to most Americans—not to say confusing and often depressing. Obama’s war has been overshadowed as other crises, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the rise of the Islamic State, competed for policymakers’ attention. Journalists, too, have largely moved on, knowing that because the war has lasted so long, stories about it get little air time and few mouse clicks. Yet America’s longest war is likely to have profound and long-lasting effects on global U.S. counterterrorism operations; Americans’ attitudes toward intervention; NATO’s willingness to consider out-of-area operations; U.S.-Pakistani and U.S.-Indian bilateral ties; the future of democracy in the non-Western world, and more. While there may be little appetite for revisiting an issue many have put out of mind, it will be a major part of Obama’s legacy.
And that legacy in Afghanistan, like President Obama’s foreign policy record as a whole, is troubled at best. At points he had the elements of the right approach—more troops, more reconstruction assistance, and a counterinsurgency strategy—but he never gave them the time and resources to succeed. Obama came into office rightly arguing that the war was important but had been sidelined, and promised to set it aright. Yet Obama’s choices since 2009 reflect a more conflicted stance, and it is not clear he ever settled on a coherent strategy. He deployed more troops than needed for a narrow counterterrorism operation, but not enough for a broader counterinsurgency campaign. He initially increased reconstruction funding because he believed, rightly, that effective Afghan governance was an essential condition for victory, but quickly second-guessed himself and subsequently reduced civilian aid every year thereafter.
Most damagingly, Obama insisted on the public issuance of a withdrawal deadline for U.S. troops, undermining his own surge—which eventually became so obvious that he finally reversed himself. Obama’s belated decision to sustain a small force of some 5,500 troops in Afghanistan beyond his term in office is likely to keep the Afghan army in the field and the Taliban from outright victory—but this is a low bar compared to what Obama once hoped to achieve there.
The Good War: 2007–09
President Obama’s legacy on Afghanistan must be measured against what he inherited from President George W. Bush. In late 2008, the war in Afghanistan was going poorly, and Bush knew it. He later wrote in his memoir that Afghanistan was “unfinished business” and said the project of bringing stability and democracy there “turned out to be more daunting than I anticipated.” Violence in Afghanistan eclipsed that in Iraq for the first time in late 2008. Bush made a few moves in the right direction: He doubled the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from roughly 20,000 in late 2006 to almost 40,000 when he left office, and massively increased aid to the Afghan army and police. In the closing months of his Administration, he ordered a strategy review led by Deputy National Security Advisor Doug Lute (which I participated in as one of the Directors for Afghanistan on Lute’s staff). Our report, as Bush described it, “called for a more robust counterinsurgency effort, including more troops and civilian resources.” Bush agreed with the report’s findings but calculated that the incoming Obama Administration would be more likely to act on it if it weren’t tainted by Bush’s name. Instead, the report became a transition document for Obama and his team.
The report found a receptive audience because Obama had been making the same case from the earliest days of his campaign. He wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2007, “We must refocus our efforts on Afghanistan and Pakistan—the central front in our war against al Qaeda—so that we are confronting terrorists where their roots run deepest.” In July 2008, in a major speech on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he rightly noted the situation in Afghanistan was “deteriorating” and “unacceptable.” He promised, “As President, I will make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win.” He pledged to deploy at least two additional brigades and spend an additional $1 billion in civilian assistance every year.
As Obama took office, he convened his own strategy review to chart the way forward. Obama’s National Security Advisor, James Jones, asked Lute and his staff to stay and provide continuity. That gave us the opportunity to support a second presidential strategy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Obama announced his policy in March 2009, echoing many of the same conclusions reached in the earlier review. He defined the goal clearly: “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” His policy explicitly committed the United States to “promoting a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan,” which required “executing and resourcing an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.”
Obama argued the war “is a cause that could not be more just. . . . The world cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan slides back into chaos or al-Qaeda operates unchecked.” With the support of both parties, two presidential strategy reviews, and a strong majority of the American people, he ordered 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan, quadrupled the number of U.S. diplomats and aid workers, and increased civilian assistance by an impressive $2 billion from 2009 to 2010. Obama was moving in the right direction and seemed ready to bet his presidency on the success of the war.
The Turn: 2009
Several events during 2009 sowed serious doubts within the Obama Administration about the feasibility of its new strategy. Violence worsened dramatically: Insurgent-initiated attacks in the summer of 2009 increased by a staggering 65 percent compared to the previous summer, including suicide bombings of NATO headquarters in Kabul in August and, later, a CIA base in Khowst in December. In 2009, 355 U.S. soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, more than double the previous year. The American public was increasingly pessimistic. In July 2009, 54 percent of Americans believed things were going well, compared to 43 percent who thought things were going badly. Five months later, that tenuous optimism had collapsed: 32 percent thought things were going well, compared to 66 percent who thought they were going badly.
Bilateral relations with the Afghan government were also in free fall. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden made no attempt to hide their mistrust and disrespect for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Administration failed to affirm the 2005 U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement, an oversight the Afghans likely interpreted as a deliberate attempt to walk back U.S. commitments to Afghan security. The Afghan presidential election that August was marred by fraud and widely seen as illegitimate by U.S. officials, while Afghans resented the perceived meddling in their election by Richard Holbrooke, then serving as Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. And in November U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry wrote that Karzai was “not an adequate strategic partner” for the United States in a cable that was quickly leaked and made public, further souring diplomatic relations.
But the event that had the most dramatic impact on the new Administration’s view of the war was the initial assessment of the new Commander of the International Security Assistance Force, (ISAF), General Stanley McChrystal, in August 2009. His verdict was devastating. “The situation in Afghanistan is serious,” he warned: “Many indicators suggest the overall situation is deteriorating. We face not only a resilient and growing insurgency; there is also a crisis of confidence among Afghans—in both their government and the international community—that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents.” McChrystal, taking seriously Obama’s words in March about a “resourcing an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy,” called for 80,000 more troops to maximize chances of success; or 40,000, with medium risk. He also developed a third option: deploying just 20,000 more troops and abandoning counterinsurgency in favor of a leaner counterterrorism mission with high risk.
McChrystal’s report, his request for more troops, and the cost of the war appalled the Obama Administration and triggered a major reassessment. But it is unclear why Obama reacted the way he did. The crises of 2009 would not have unsettled a more experienced Administration. The downturn in diplomatic relations was avoidable, while the spike in violence and McChyrstal’s assessment essentially validated what Obama had been saying on the campaign trail, and he could have claimed them as such. But the new Administration, distracted by the economic downturn and eager to move on to its signature health care initiative, seemed caught off guard when it learned that it had been more right than it knew about Afghanistan’s deterioration.
The result was a third White House strategy review (I left the NSC shortly before this one started). This time, however, the result was different, and produced the three key strategic errors of Obama’s war.
First was Obama’s attempt at compromise, which only led to strategic incoherence. The President faced a basic strategic choice between a lean, pared-down counterterrorism mission focused on al-Qaeda, or a larger and more ambitious counterinsurgency strategy to beat back the Taliban while improving Afghan governance. The second was by far the better option and had the backing of the two successive high-level strategy reviews because it articulated a clear end-state—a legitimate Afghan government capable of denying terrorist safe haven on its own—that would allow the United States to withdraw with its interests intact. But even the first option had some logic to it by limiting America’s investment and lowering its aims in South Asia.
Instead, Obama chose neither option; he attempted to compromise, and got the worst of both. He achieved neither the economy of the first option nor the ambition of the second. On the one hand, Obama echoed the rhetoric he had voiced for years: “Our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al-Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak,” he warned. “And this danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al-Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on al-Qaeda.” He also emphasized the need for a “more effective civilian strategy.” To that end, Obama ordered another surge, this time of 30,000 troops, bringing the total to more than 100,000 by mid-2010—far more than required for a narrow counterterrorism operation. Afghanistan, the third-largest military operation since Vietnam, had definitively become Obama’s war.
Yet even as he doubled down, Obama began hedging. The crises of 2009 led Obama to a “reassessment of whether the war was as necessary as he first believed,” according to New York Times reporter David Sanger.1 He came to believe that “progress was possible—but not on the kind of timeline that [he] thought economically or politically affordable.” He was concerned the war was a drain on the U.S. economy (although it cost less than one half of one percent of GDP in 2009). Despite the first two strategy reviews’ recommendations to adopt a counterinsurgency strategy, the new approach “is not fully resourced counterinsurgency or nation building, but a narrower approach tied more tightly to the core goal of disrupting, dismantling, and eventually defeating al-Qaeda and preventing al Qaeda’s return to safe haven in Afghanistan or Pakistan,” according to an internal NSC memo.2 He deployed far fewer troops than McChrystal recommended for a counterinsurgency campaign. In contrast to his campaign rhetoric, Obama spent the rest of his presidency carefully avoiding saying that the United States aimed to “defeat” the Taliban or “win” the war. Rather like Lyndon Johnson 45 years earlier, the President escalated a war while simultaneously doubting whether it could be won.
And because he decided against staffing and paying for counterinsurgency, he also backed off his commitment to promoting accountable and effective government in Afghanistan, his second major error. While he continued publicly to argue that improved governance was important to the overall mission, privately the same internal NSC memo states the U.S. government would only be “selectively building the capacity of the Afghan government with military [sic] focused on the ministries of defense and interior,” a move with major long-term consequences. Following the President’s guidance, a group of White House staffers convened starting in 2010 to search for an “Afghan Good Enough” solution and exit, an obvious effort to lower the goal posts and make it easier for the United States to declare victory and leave. Civilian aid to Afghanistan decreased every year after 2010. By eschewing investments in Afghan governance and reducing civilian aid while still deploying 100,000 troops, Obama abandoned any vision of a political end-state that would allow the United States to disengage with its interests intact. He also ended up with the most expensive, lumbering, and inefficient “CT-only” option imaginable.
And, of course, Obama set a deadline to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, his third major strategic mistake and the single most consequential decision of the war. The avalanche of criticism against the Administration for its withdrawal plans is fully justified, but it has also obscured some facts. Obama’s first mention of withdrawal, in December 2009, was only in reference to the surge troops, not the 68,000 who were already in country, and he only set a date for the beginning of the withdrawal, not its completion. The following year, in June, the Afghans and the international community agreed at the Kabul Conference to “transition” to an Afghan lead for security by 2014, which many interpreted, wrongly, as the withdrawal deadline. A year later, in July 2011, the President announced for the first time that he planned to begin withdrawing non-surge troops, and again affirmed a 2014 target for transition. It wasn’t until May 2014 that he finally set a deadline—by the end of 2016—to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
But these nuances were lost in the noise of public debate and lost in translation to Dari and Pashto. What most Americans and Afghans heard was that the United States was leaving Afghanistan—and this was the single most consistent message the Administration delivered about the war for almost six years.
Obama publicly defended the withdrawal as a necessary tactic to compel the Afghan government to take responsibility for its security and implement needed reforms. But domestic political considerations also played a part. Obama felt compelled to begin talking about withdrawal because he was worried about the political sustainability of the war. “I can’t lose all the Democratic Party,” he reportedly worried, according to Bob Woodward’s account of the Administration’s deliberations, “And people at home don’t want to hear we’re going to be there for ten years…. We can’t sustain a commitment indefinitely in the United States. We can’t sustain support at home and with allies without having some explanation that involves timelines.”3 Perhaps the President thought that a deadline was necessary as well to compel the U.S. military to reexamine its own timelines with a mind to achieving more urgent progress. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates later argued in his memoir that, “with the deadlines Obama politically bought our military—and civilians—five more years to achieve our mission in Afghanistan.”
Obama was right about one thing: The Democratic Party solidly opposed the surge and supported the deadline. In September 2009, 62 percent of Democrats opposed Obama’s impending surge decision, and 63 percent of Republicans supported it. Otherwise, Obama’s political worries were groundless, and Gates’s claim is false. The war in Afghanistan was never as politically unpopular as the war in Iraq. It never became unpopular until the President started to telegraph his disbelief in the mission. The public did not demand a withdraw deadline prior to Obama’s announcement of one.4 In July 2008 (when Obama gave his campaign speech), 57 percent of Americans supported sending more U. S. troops to Afghanistan. In February 2009, 65 percent of the public supported Obama’s deployment of more troops, and 70 percent believed Afghanistan would fall to the Taliban if the U.S. military withdrew. In July 2011, when the President first announced withdrawals of pre-surge troops, 59 percent were not confident the Afghan government could secure itself. In March 2012, 58 percent of Americans said they were worried that withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan too quickly would again make Afghanistan a safe haven for terrorists.
The public did eventually express support for the withdrawal deadlines—after Obama announced them. In February 2009, 48 percent of Americans believed the U.S. government should keep troops in Afghanistan until the situation got better, while 47 percent believed the Administration should set a timetable for withdrawing troops. Throughout 2009 the public wavered, split evenly between surging and withdrawing. In July 2010, seven months after the President’s speech, 33 percent wanted to keep troops in for the duration, while 66 percent supported the timetable. Obama was not forced by public pressure to withdraw troops, and time was not running out on the Afghan mission. He could have sustained support for the war if he had been willing to reach across the isle and work with Republicans who supported his initial war plan. Instead, he allowed partisan considerations to interfere with strategic logic.
Because of Obama’s ambivalence and compromise, the U.S. government implemented a strange policy in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012. Obama deployed more troops than he needed for a counterterrorism operation, but not as many as his top commander recommended for a more robust counterinsurgency campaign. The surge showed some visible and positive battlefield effects, but Obama began withdrawing troops as soon as signs of success appeared. After having kept his campaign promise to increase civilian aid in the first year of his presidency, he reversed himself and decreased civilian aid every year thereafter. By 2011 the President “decided to exit even if the job was far from complete, even if there was no guarantee that gains made in the past decade could last,” according to Sanger. He solidified the withdrawal deadline without even consulting his military advisers.
The surge worked. In October 2011, the Department of Defense reported, “After five consecutive years where enemy-initiated attacks and overall violence increased sharply each year (for example, up 94 percent in 2010 over 2009), such attacks began to decrease in May 2011 compared to the previous year and continue to decline.” The decline continued throughout 2012. Serious, non-partisan and non-governmental sources noted the improvements. The New York Times reported in March 2011, “The Taliban have been under stress since American forces doubled their presence in southern Afghanistan last year and greatly increased the number of special forces raids aimed at hunting down Taliban commanders.”
RAND analyst Seth Jones, the foremost American scholar of the Taliban insurgency and author of In the Graveyard of Empires, wrote in May 2011, “after years of gains, the Taliban’s progress has stalled—and even reversed—in southern Afghanistan this year.” Even the UN noted progress, reporting in March 2011 that,
The number of districts under insurgent control has decreased…. As a result of the increased tempo of security operations in northern and western provinces, an increasing number of anti-Government elements are seeking to join local reintegration programmes…. In Kabul, the increasingly effective Afghan national security forces continue to limit insurgent attacks.
Steve Biddle later examined the record of U.S. operations in Afghanistan at the height of the surge and concluded that “the Afghan experience shows that current U.S. methods can return threatened districts to government control, when conducted with the necessary time and resources.”5
Fatalities of U.S. troops began to decline in 2011, and the number of Afghan civilians killed in the war declined in 2012 for the first time. Poppy cultivation appeared to be holding steady well below its 2007 peak, while opium production plummeted in 2012. The Administration doubled the number of Afghan soldiers and policemen from early 2009 to December 2011, throwing a significantly larger armed force at the enemy. Other indicators also suggested progress: Afghanistan’s rank in Reporters Without Borders Index of Press Freedom markedly improved after 2012. By 2012 Afghans were registering some optimism in public opinion polls. In 2013 the U.S. effort appeared to get the closest it ever got to opening formal peace negotiations with the Taliban when the group briefly opened an “embassy” in Qatar and, the following year, agreed to a prisoner exchange for U.S. serviceman Bowe Bergdahl.
In July 2011, Obama rightly noted the gains made by the surge: “We’ll have to do the hard work of keeping the gains that we’ve made, while we draw down our forces and transition responsibility for security to the Afghan government.” To that end, he promised to “build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures—one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government.” And in May 2012, during a visit to Kabul, Obama appeared to lock in the gains of the surge by signing a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan that tried to undo the damage to Afghans’ confidence in the United States after the Administration’s failure to reaffirm the previous 2005 agreement and its repeated talk of withdrawal. Obama reiterated, “We must give Afghanistan the opportunity to stabilize. Otherwise, our gains could be lost and al-Qaeda could establish itself once more.” Obama explained that the agreement, “establishes the basis for our cooperation over the next decade” and laid the groundwork to give the Afghans the “support they need to accomplish two narrow security missions beyond 2014—counter-terrorism and continued training.” The agreement was supplemented by a ten-year Bilateral Security Agreement signed in 2014, which most observers—including the Afghans—assumed came with a U.S. military presence on the ground.
Transition and Withdrawal: 2013–14
Unfortunately, the surge’s gains were undone by Obama’s insistence on withdrawing U.S. troops on a fixed timeline and by his underinvestment in governance and reconstruction. By the beginning of 2013, the withdrawal was well underway: There were 65,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan at the start of 2013; 40,000 in 2014; and just 9,800 in 2015. Afghan security forces were not ready to pick up the slack. Throughout 2013 and 2014, Defense Department officials warned repeatedly that Afghan security forces, though improving, faced capability gaps in logistics, intelligence, air support, and more, limiting their ability to undertake independent operations without U.S. support and training.
As international military forces left, the Taliban regained the initiative. Because of the departure of U.S. troops, the Department of Defense was no longer able to compile the data to track the incidence of enemy-initiated attacks, but other indicators made clear the deteriorating security situation. According to the International Crisis Group in 2014, “Unpublished assessments estimated a 15 to 20 percent increase in violence for 2013, as compared with 2012. Escalation appeared to continue in the early months of 2014.” The Defense Department reported at the end of 2013 that, “the insurgency has also consolidated gains in some of the rural areas in which it has traditionally held power.” Real estate prices in Kabul fell and applications for asylum skyrocketed. Civilian fatalities, which had declined in 2012, rose to an all-time high in 2014. The number of internally displaced persons in Afghanistan exploded, nearly doubling from 352,000 in 2010 to 631,000 in 2013.
At the same time, other indicators showed a stagnant, even regressing Afghanistan, a trend that accelerated as the international withdrawal gathered steam. According to the World Bank’s governance indicators, since 2009 Afghanistan made no significant progress on political stability or the rule of law and barely perceptible progress on government effectiveness, regulatory quality, or controlling corruption, reflecting the Obama Administration’s conscious decision not to invest in Afghan governance. The licit Afghan economy began to cool, growing by just 3.4 percent in 2013 and 1.7 percent in 2014, reflecting both the decreased international presence and the Administration’s reduced spending on reconstruction. Poppy cultivation achieved another all-time high in 2013. In 2014, 40 percent of Afghans said their country was headed in the wrong direction, up from 31 percent in 2012. The most successful part of the American intervention in Afghanistan was the creation of the Afghan army, but the underinvestment in governance yielded a foreboding net effect: the juxtaposition of a strong and popular army with a weak and unpopular state.
Even as Afghanistan deteriorated from 2013 onwards, ever fewer American policymakers or journalists paid much attention, or believed it mattered. A Lexis-Nexis search shows roughly twice as much media coverage of Afghanistan from Obama’s inauguration through May 2012, when he signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement in Kabul, as during the three years afterwards. With his re-election campaign behind him, Obama no longer had to worry about the political ramifications of the war. The Administration’s attempt to “pivot” to Asia was a pivot to East Asia, and left South Asia in the same basket as the Middle East. Ukraine’s eruption into discord in late 2013, followed by Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in early 2014, stole the headlines—until the Islamic State seized Mosul a few months later, which in turn was supplanted by the Ebola panic in late 2014.
An air of unreality settled over the war in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014. Presidents from both parties had repeatedly stressed the vital importance of the war, devoted tens of thousands of U.S. troops to it, and spent many billions of dollars on it. The war had already been rescued from the brink once. Now, because of the withdrawal of U.S. troops, it was teetering again, putting more than a decade of investment and sacrifice on the line—and few, including the President, seemed to notice or care. In May 2014, in the face of mounting evidence that Afghanistan was lurching toward failure, Obama announced his plans to complete the withdrawal of all U.S. troops. America’s longest war had lingered too long: most Americans had simply changed the channel.
In an unfortunate coincidence, President Obama announced the final pullout from Afghanistan just one month before the Islamic State seized Mosul and reminded the world of the dangers of failed states and jihadi groups who find safe haven in them. Within months, the United States was essentially back at war in Iraq—and it was easy to draw the obvious lesson for the war in Afghanistan. The sea change in political opinion in the United States about Afghanistan was firm and swift. In March 2015, dozens of former U.S. officials, including Obama’s former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Michèle Flournoy, signed an open letter to the President calling on him to repudiate his Afghanistan withdrawal policy and keep U.S. troops there past 2016. Later that year, dozens more, including two of his former Secretaries of Defense, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel, endorsed an Atlantic Council report with the same message. It is impolite to say so, but the rise of the Islamic State was a boon—a temporary one, at any rate—for Afghanistan’s future.
Obama bowed to the pressure this past autumn, shortly after the Taliban seized the northern city of Kunduz, scrapping his plans to withdraw all U.S. troops by the end of his term. Unfortunately, much damage has been done in the meantime. The stay-behind force of 5,500 troops is necessary to prevent the Taliban’s further advances, but it cannot undo six years of uncertainty and second-guessing, and the number of troops is almost certainly too few for the mission they have been given.
President Obama spent nearly his entire presidency talking about withdrawing from Afghanistan. He intended the withdrawal deadline to pressure the corrupt and intransigent Afghan government to reform, but critics argued, rightly, that it would instead incentivize hedging behavior as our local allies, in the face of uncertainty, became preoccupied with securing their personal interests instead of their country’s. And clearly, the deadline emboldened the Taliban and undermined the surge. Six years later, the Taliban is resurgent, but the Afghan government has not cleaned up its act: The withdrawal incurred the costs critics feared without accomplishing the goals its advocates intended—and the withdrawal will not end up actually happening, making the entire exercise profoundly futile.
The withdrawal illustrates a broader problem with President Obama’s handling of the war: remarkably poor messaging about the war and its importance. In contrast to his strident campaign rhetoric, throughout his presidency Obama was remarkably reticent to talk about the longest and most significant U.S. military deployment under his command and a centerpiece of his foreign policy. Since December 2009, all of his major presidential addresses on Afghanistan have been about withdrawing troops. Obama has exuded uncertain, even disinterested, wartime leadership.
This is unfortunate, because the war in Afghanistan and its aftermath are likely to have far-reaching consequences for the United States and the world. Americans are likely to be far more wary about intervening in other countries or volunteering troops for peace-building missions abroad—unjustifiably, since the under-resourced and deadline-constrained American intervention in Afghanistan is hardly an ideal test case for the principle of intervention. NATO has been strained badly by the war and almost certainly will not attempt another out-of-area operation for the foreseeable future. Ongoing instability in Afghanistan risks spilling over into Pakistan, a highly dangerous scenario. The war has inflicted irreparable damage on U.S.-Pakistani relations, but without the benefit of having actually won the war and pacified Pakistan’s western border. The failure to foster effective governance in Afghanistan means that transnational drug traffickers effectively have free run of a large swath of South Asia. The U.S. and Afghan failure to reign in corruption has tarnished democracy’s reputation both in the country and beyond it. The project of liberal order-building, which the United States has spearheaded since World War II, took an unnecessary hit because of Obama’s poor wartime leadership in Afghanistan (and Iraq).
But even that is not the most damning consequence of Obama’s legacy in Afghanistan. The war was, first and foremost, the frontline global U.S. counterterrorism efforts against the transnational jihadi movement. In 2011, Leon Panetta, then serving as Secretary of Defense, claimed that al-Qaeda was near strategic defeat. The same year President Obama assured Americans that the “tide of war is receding.” Both statements were false, as critics argued at the time and as later events proved. The Administration failed to understand the essential conditions of victory in war: the creation of an alternate just political order. Without a stable and legitimate political order in Afghanistan, there will be no end to political violence there.
Five years ago I warned, “the single greatest strategic threat is the weakness of the Afghan government” and called for “a dramatically more ambitious capacity-development program.” Some critics, in their eagerness to highlight the flaws in President Bush’s handling of the war, argue the U.S. government had unrealistic ambitions for democracy and good government in Afghanistan. But this criticism misses the point and fails to explain what the alternative should be. Whether or not Afghanistan is ready for democratic government—and we should note that Afghanistan’s first democratic constitution was ratified in 1964—it needs an effective government. Competent, functioning institutions are the precondition for any sort of future stability in Afghanistan. Obama did nothing to address this strategic deficit. This, his greatest failure, is why the President was forced to re-engage in both Iraq and Afghanistan, against his wishes, and why he will be handing off both conflicts to his successor, unfinished and uncertain. In that, Obama failed to surpass even the low bar set by his predecessor. Bush got many things wrong, but he at least had a vision of an alternate just political order toward which he wanted to move the region. Obama has lacked even that.
1Sanger, Confront and Conceal, pp. 29, 56, 128. See chapters 2, 5, and 10 for the broader narrative of Afghan policy.
2Woodward, Obama’s Wars, p. 387.
3Woodward, Obama’s Wars, pp. 336, 230.
4Again the parallel with Vietnam is uncanny. An analysis of the polls, best done by John E. Mueller in War, Presidents and Public Opinion (1973), shows that there was never a majority in favor of U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam until President Johnson’s famous speech of March 31, 1968, in which he made clear that the U.S. government would no longer try to win the war, but instead would seek a negotiated withdrawal.
5Stephen Biddle, “Afghanistan’s Legacy: Emerging Lessons of an Ongoing War,” Washington Quarterly (April 2014), and see Daniel Byman, “Friends like These: Counterinsurgency and the War on Terrorism,” International Security (October 2006).