President Barack Obama marked a milestone Sunday on the way to one of the most important, controversial, and riskiest promises of his presidency: winding down the American-led coalition’s combat role in Afghanistan in preparation for ending the long war there next year.
American and British combat operations formally came to an end in Helmand province, one of the bloodiest theaters in the U.S.-led war against the Taliban and a primary focus of Obama’s 2010 surge of tens of thousands of American reinforcements charged with beating back the revitalized insurgency.
But there were no White House statements issued Sunday to commemorate the occasion, no press conferences convened to celebrate the day. Instead, U.S. Marines and British forces in southern Afghanistan quietly lowered and folded their flags in a solemn ceremony at Camp Leatherneck, the largest U.S. base to be handed over to Afghan authorities, and Britain’s neighboring Camp Bastion to mark the formal transfer of power to the Afghan Army’s 215th Corps. The two countries lost hundreds of troops in Helmand, but the situation there remains so dangerous that the precise timing of the base closures was kept secret for security reasons.
British Defense Minister Michael Fallon said his country’s military — which lost 453 troops in Afghanistan — had "set the security context that enabled the first democratic transition of power in the country’s history, and stopped it being a launch pad for terrorist attacks in the U.K."
Still, Fallon, showing a candor often missing in the statements of equally senior American officials, acknowledged that "mistakes were made militarily, mistakes were made by the politicians at the time, and this goes back 10, 13 years."
"Clearly the numbers weren’t there at the beginning, the equipment wasn’t quite good enough at the beginning, and we’ve learned an awful lot from the campaign," he said. "But don’t let’s ignore what has been achieved."
The landmark passed with little fanfare in Washington, reflecting the degree to which the Obama administration has sought to move beyond a deeply unpopular conflict that marked the opening front in the U.S.-led war on terrorism and took the lives of 3,476 coalition forces, including 2,349 Americans. The White House Twitter feed didn’t even mention Afghanistan, devoting its attention to assuring anxious Americans that there is little risk of the Ebola virus spreading across the homeland like some pernicious wildfire.
Military leaders often contend that they are reluctant to publicize the details about base closures or military handovers of power because of security concerns. But it was hard not to suspect that the administration’s silence on Sunday’s end about Marine military operations in Helmand was driven by concerns about what the future may portend in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have retaken broad swaths of the country, including large portions of Helmand itself.
Col. Dave Lapan, a Marine spokesman, told Foreign Policy that the Marines were withdrawing on schedule and said the Pentagon doesn’t normally announce unit departures.
Obama has already come under increasing fire from critics, including his former defense secretary, Leon Panetta, for withdrawing forces prematurely from Iraq. Panetta has argued that a residual U.S. military force could have prevented former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a hard-line Shiite, from taking such harsh anti-Sunni measures that many of the embattled minority eventually chose to side with the Islamic State. A small American presence, Panetta wrote in his new memoir, "could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with al Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country."
The Afghan war is already the longest in American history. On Oct. 7, 2001, President George W. Bush launched a major military operation, dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom, in response to al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. The goal of the war, according to Bush, was to topple the Taliban regime, strike at al Qaeda camps, and "make it more difficult for the terror network to train new recruits and coordinate their evil plans."
At the height of the conflict, the American-led military coalition, known as ISAF, had more than 140,000 troops. There are currently about 40,000 troops left in Afghanistan, and, by the end of the year, that number will fall to about 12,500, including 9,800 Americans. The troops will primarily be charged with providing training and advice to Afghan forces.
Thirteen years later, the Taliban remains a powerful force in Afghanistan, and the United States continues to battle Islamic extremists from Somalia to Iraq and Syria, where the so-called Islamic State has seized control of massive swaths of both countries. Some U.S. military officials believe the administration should rethink its withdrawal timeline. Foreign Policy reported last month that the Afghan and Pakistani governments, which are frequently at odds, have been quietly lobbying the White House to keep more troops in the country longer, but there are no signs that the administration is willing to rethink its plans.
Other observers worry that the ongoing withdrawal could threaten the government of the country’s new and pro-Western leader, Ashraf Ghani.
"A premature U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would put Afghanistan as well as U.S. security interests at risk," Kai Eide, a former U.N. special representative to Afghanistan, wrote in an unpublished paper he shared with Foreign Policy. He wrote that Afghanistan’s new leader is confronting the "fragility of the political, security and economic situation and the danger of setbacks, fragmentation and more violence."
"Recent developments in Iraq illustrate the danger of premature withdrawal," he wrote. ”The risk of new instabilities that could threaten the progress made in Afghanistan and again turn the country into a safe haven for terrorists is real."
Scott Smith, the director of Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said that the big question Afghans will now be asking themselves is what kind of support will the United States continue to provide in Helmand and beyond. "Will the jungle grow over, or will the new government be able to fill the space?" he asked.
"What happens in Helmand will be a very big test of this new government’s ability to exercise authority and an early indication of whether or not Afghanistan is going to go the way that Iraq has," Smith added. Smith said that despite the gloomy outlook, it is too early to conclude that Afghanistan will deteriorate the way that Iraq has.
U.S. military officials have offered mixed assessments of the risks of sticking to the withdrawal timelines. Asked at a press conference in Kabul earlier this month whether a larger contingent of American troops would help ensure a smooth transition, Gen. John F. Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said that "I think any military guy is going to tell you if you could leave a force, you’d always leave a force."
But he added: "I think we’re in a different place than we were with Iraq. The military here, the Afghan security forces, [it’s] completely different than when I left Iraq, and they’re completely different than when I was here just a couple of years ago. They’ve taken on the security mission from last June of ’13. They had it mostly entirely by themselves for the summer of ’14. I think they’ve done very well, supporting both the elections and through some of the major events."
Campbell said he was confident the Afghan forces would be able to reclaim any territory lost to the Taliban — an optimistic assessment not shared by many Afghans or outside observers.
In the meantime, Campbell and other military officials have sought to assure the Afghans that they are not leaving the troops to fight the Taliban empty-handed. Col. Doug Patterson, a Marine commander at Camp Leatherneck, told Reuters that the United States will leave behind about $230 million worth of property and equipment, including a major airstrip. "We gave them the maps to the place," he said. "We gave them the keys."
Kate Brannen contributed to this report.