Imagine President Franklin Roosevelt announcing at the end of 1944, after the liberation of France but before the final defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, that World War II was over and that U.S. forces were ending combat operations. Instead we would support our allies, from Britain to China, in their fight against the Axis powers.
Hard to imagine, but that’s roughly what happened Sunday when the International Security Assistance Command held a ceremony in Kabul to mark the “end” of the war in Afghanistan. “The longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion,” President Obama trumpeted in a statement from Hawaii, where he is vacationing.
If only it were possible to end a war unilaterally. But it’s not. As the military likes to say, the enemy gets a vote. And there is no sign that the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Al Qaeda and other militant Islamist groups have any intention of ending their armed struggle to seize power in Kabul. Indeed, 2014 was the deadliest year of the war so far, with nearly 10,000 civilian casualties and some 5,000 deaths among the Afghan security forces — far more than the 2,224 Americans killed in Afghanistan in more than 13 years of combat since October 2001.
It’s true that the Taliban has suffered significant losses since the start of a U.S. “surge” launched by Obama in 2010. The losses were most severe in the Taliban heartland of Helmand and Kandahar provinces in southern Afghanistan. But given the limitations of forces (Obama arbitrarily capped U.S. troop levels at 100,000) and time (Obama arbitrarily limited the surge to 18 months), the American offensive never had a serious chance of ending the insurgency, which continues to receive sanctuary and support in Pakistan.
And now the U.S. drawdown — troop levels have fallen to 10,800 — is likely to give the Taliban a fresh burst of energy. At least Obama has not pulled out all U.S. troops as some of his advisors urged, and he has given the remaining forces the power to call in airstrikes if necessary. But he has pulled out enough to imperil the ability of the Afghan security forces to control their country. Particularly worrisome is the complete pullout of all coalition personnel from Helmand province, where U.S. Marines fought so hard to roll back the Taliban.
A small number of coalition forces will remain in the south, but they will be at Kandahar Airfield, not in Helmand. Kandahar is one of only a handful of coalition bases that will remain, hundreds having already been closed. And the designations of those that remain will change. Regional Command-East (RC-E, in military shorthand), for example, now becomes Train, Advise, Assist Command-East, TAAC-E.
This is part of a general rebranding of what can no longer be called a war effort. Goodbye, Operation Enduring Freedom, as the U.S. mission in Afghanistan had been known since 2001. Hello, Operation Resolute Support.
This transition is meant to convey the impression that the Afghan forces are self-sufficient, even though everyone knows they are not. This rhetorical legerdemain was similar to the way Obama rebranded the U.S. operation in Iraq in 2010, from Operation Iraqi Freedom to the Orwellian Operation New Dawn. Back then, too, U.S. combat forces were rebranded as “advise and assist” forces. This change was harmless enough, because far more U.S. forces remained in Iraq (52,000) than now remain in Afghanistan.
But the situation in Iraq took a perilous turn at the end of 2011 when Obama pulled out the remaining U.S. forces after having failed to negotiate a status-of-forces agreement with the Iraqi government. That cleared the way for Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to launch a sectarian crackdown on Sunnis, which, in turn, led many Sunnis to embrace Islamic State. The situation in Iraq has become so disastrous, in fact, that Obama has now sent back a small number of U.S. troops (some 3,000 so far authorized) and launched airstrikes on Islamic State.
The Iraq situation shows the danger of a premature, unilateral withdrawal in the face of an undefeated enemy. Yet Obama appears set to repeat that mistake in Afghanistan. He has announced that by the end of 2015 U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be down to 5,000 and that by the end of 2016 they will be withdrawn altogether.
Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s reformist new president, has asked the administration to reconsider this timeline and to keep more U.S. forces in Afghanistan longer. This will seem to many Americans as a commitment to “endless” war, but, in fact, the danger to U.S. forces will be relatively limited (they will not be on the frontlines) and the good they can do will be vast by keeping the Taliban and other Islamist militant groups from retaking control of the country from which the 9/11 attack was launched.
Max Boot is a contributing editor to Opinion and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.