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Obama’s legacy on Afghanistan

Obama’s legacy on Afghanistan

Few pieces could be more damaging to President Obama’s claim to the mantle of a skilled war-time commander-in-chief than the New York Times’ exposé on how his views on Afghanistan shifted from his hawkish campaign to his eager-to-withdraw presidency.

Obama reportedly did not consult with the military before announcing in July 2011 his plans to withdraw U.S. troops and end the combat mission in Afghanistan. “The generals were cut out entirely,” according to the Times, confirming that the withdrawal is not dictated by military necessities.

Instead of taking military advice, Obama’s policy was predicated on a false reading of history. “Mr. Obama concluded in his first year that the Bush-era dream of remaking Afghanistan was a fantasy.” But Bush never had that dream. Bush invoked lofty rhetoric, but never seriously undertook the reconstruction of Afghanistan. A serious effort would have involved massively more money and personnel. Bush’s administration was famous for doing nation-building on the cheap with a light-footprint. Nonetheless, Obama got sticker-shock by the price tag of the Afghan war and decided to lower the bar from the already-low starting point.

Funny thing: Afghanistan is the second-cheapest major war in U.S. history as a percentage of GDP, according to the Congressional Research Service. It seems odd to get sticker shock for a war that has accounted for about 1 percent of U.S. federal expenditures over the last decade. About 65 percent of federal expenditures over the last ten years have gone towards entitlements. By comparison, about 15 percent has gone towards national defense, excluding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq has cost three percent, and only about one percent has gone towards the war in Afghanistan (including the cost of ongoing military operations and all reconstruction and stabilization assistance combined), according to my analysis of figures from OMB (see table, below).

But Obama let neither fiscal nor military realities drive his policy. Instead, he began to doubt the importance and feasibility of the war. In probably the most damning passage, the Times writes:

[Obama] also began to reassess whether emerging victorious in Afghanistan was as necessary as he had once proclaimed. Ultimately, Obama agreed to double the size of the American force while training the Afghan armed forces, but famously insisted that, whether America was winning or losing, the drawdown would begin in just 18 months.

The president escalated the war while simultaneously doubting whether it was very important or even winnable. He came to believe that “progress was possible — but not on the kind of timeline that [he] thought economically or politically affordable.” I suspect Obama was going to get sticker shock no matter what the price tag, simply because he didn’t want to pay for a war he no longer believed in.

If Obama sincerely believed the war was either unimportant or already lost, he had a moral responsibility to the soldiers under his command to order their immediate withdrawal; or, contrarily, if he believed the war was still important and winnable (which it is), he had a responsibility to go “all in” and give the troops everything they needed for victory. He did neither, seeking to do just enough to get credit for trying while avoiding an even larger commitment that would have dominated his presidency. Analogizing Vietnam is almost never appropriate, but here it seems irresistible.

“Mr. Obama concluded that the Pentagon had not internalized that the goal was not to defeat the Taliban,” according to the Times. The easiest way for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to differentiate himself from Obama on Afghanistan would be to reverse Obama’s temporizing and make the Taliban’s defeat the goal of U.S. policy in South Asia. Such a policy makes sense because, as the Times concludes, under Obama’s policy, “Left unclear is how America will respond if a Taliban resurgence takes over wide swathes of the country.” Obama himself said in his speech in Kabul that stability in Afghanistan is a prerequisite to denying safe haven to al Qaeda. “Otherwise, our gains could be lost and al Qaeda could establish itself once more,” he said. That’s true: So why has he refused to take the steps necessary to ensure lasting stability in Afghanistan? His failure to do so is his legacy.