Obama's Legacy and the "Endless" War

The president had hoped to be known for having ended both of the shooting wars that he inherited. It hasn't quite worked out that way.

President Obama speaks about Afghanistan troop withdrawals in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Thursday.  (Pool AFP/Getty)

President Obama’s decision to halt the planned withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan is a reminder that wars rarely are as neat as campaign promises, particularly when the battlefield is the hostile terrain of Afghanistan, a land where foreign invaders have found it challenging to maintain military occupations.

Getting out always has been messy there, as the 19th-century British and 20th-century Soviets discovered. There are clear differences, though, for 21st-century America, differences noted by the president in his somber remarks in the Roosevelt Room on Thursday. As he stated, the bulk of the U.S. troops have long since gone home, American casualties have dwindled, combat operations have become the responsibility of Afghan forces, and a democratically elected Afghan government has asked for the delay in the final draw-down.

None of that has shielded the president from criticism from both his right and his left. House Speaker John Boehner accused the president of letting “campaign promises and partisan agendas” set his war policy, reflecting the Republican belief that too many troops have been pulled out too fast, allowing terrorist gains. On the left, the feeling is the pullout has been too little. “Obama Adds Endless Afghan War to Legacy” was the headline Thursday in Common Dreams, a progressive publication.

At the White House, they know that the neat legacy Obama’s team had yearned for now is unattainable. They know that the first sentence in the history books will be that he was the first African-American president. But they hoped the second sentence would be that he ended the two shooting wars that he inherited from President George W. Bush. Thursday’s announcement changes that sentence.

If that is disappointing to Obama, he didn’t show it Thursday, flatly denying that it is a setback and casting it as a not-surprising reassessment of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. “This decision is not disappointing,” he insisted, adding, “This isn’t the first time those adjustments have been made; this probably won’t be the last.”

What’s important, he said, is that the United States proves to the Afghans that “we’re going to be a steady partner for them.” Left unsaid was an acknowledgement that the Pentagon never thought it wise to reduce the American commitment so deeply that only enough troops to protect the embassy remained. Afghanistan is just too critical to the fight against terrorism and too much American blood has been shed to risk a takeover of Afghan cities by either the Taliban or the more extremist Islamic State.

This is a reversal of a specific timetable once outlined by the president. But it is not a betrayal of campaign promises. In fact, Obama has consistently championed the U.S. mission in Afghanistan even as he was attacking Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and the resulting war there. In the 2002 speech in which he announced his opposition to war in Iraq, he implicitly supported going into Afghanistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden. “I was a strong supporter of the war in Afghanistan,” he recalled later about that speech.

Then, in his 2008 campaign, he promised, “When I am president, we will wage the war that has to be won. ... There must be no safe haven for terrorists who threaten America.” He pledged to send more combat brigades to Afghanistan. He kept that promise less than a month after his inauguration. In office, one of his most important national security decisions in 2009 was to send an additional 30,000 troops there. Repeatedly, he cast Iraq as a distraction from Afghanistan, stating it “deprived (U.S. troops) of the support they need and deserve.”

Now, his latest decision is very much in keeping with his 2008 campaign promise to “finish the job against al-Qaida in Afghanistan.”

This just isn’t the way that the president thought he would get there. Or the timetable he thought he would follow. Running for reelection in 2012, he hoped to “end the war in Afghanistan in 2014.” Now, he words it more carefully, stating that “America’s combat mission” there did, indeed, conclude in 2014. But he has come to recognize that he cannot responsibly end U.S. involvement in the war as he had hoped.

It’s not a conclusion he wanted to reach. Nor is it one that gives him the desired, neat legacy. But it is one he reached after meeting with top military commanders to “continually assess, honestly, the situation on the ground to determine where our strategy is working and where we may need greater flexibility.” In the end, that is what a commander in chief is supposed to do—even if it messes with his political legacy.