The South Asia Channel

A Legacy of Success in Afghanistan

Changing the timeline of U.S. troop withdrawal is a smart move for Afghanistan.

President Obama Speaks At U.S. Central Command At Macdill Air Force Base
TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 17: U.S. President Barack Obama greets soldiers during a visit to the U.S. Central Command at the MacDill Air Force Base on September 17, 2014 in Tampa, Florida. Obama visited the base to receive a briefing from his top commanders at CENTCOM, on the strategy to degrade and destroy ISIL. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

While other conflicts in the world currently grab more headlines, history’s view of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy will be heavily influenced by the decisions he makes about the nature of our long-term engagement with Afghanistan. For this reason, news that the White House might slow the U.S. troop withdrawal is a welcome step towards getting both the policies and politics of Afghanistan right.

Much has changed since May 2014, when Obama announced his decision to reduce the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to fewer than 5,000 troops by the end of 2015, and to a skeleton force by the end of 2016. Most notably, the United States now has a new and trustworthy partner in Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, but, more ominously, the Islamic State’s menacing presence in Iraq and Syria has reminded us that violent ideologies are not quickly, or easily, defeated.

While Obama has ended combat operations in Afghanistan as promised, given his oft-stated commitment to the country and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s recent pronouncement that “lasting success” is the goal, it makes sense that the White House is reassessing the length of our “train, advise, and assist” mission. Delaying the troop withdrawal for the rest of the year is an important step in the right direction, yet we could avoid having this conversation again in December by prolonging Operation Resolute Support until 2017, leaving the current, reduced number of troops on the ground and keeping regional bases open through the end of Obama’s second term. This, however, does not mean sending more troops to Afghanistan or re-engaging in combat operations. But it does mean continuing to take Gen. John Campbell’s advice that our decisions are based on the conditions on the ground.

A rare near-consensus has emerged around this proposition among a growing number of leaders — across a usually impermeable partisan divide — on Capitol Hill and in the national security and foreign policy communities. Senate leaders, for example, recently offered a bipartisan path forward along these very lines.

This consensus aligns principles of pragmatic national security, political interest, and American moral responsibility. As foreign policy becomes increasingly politicized ahead of the 2016 election, adjusting course in Afghanistan would give Obama a short-term political win with long-term strategic benefits.

Pragmatic National Security. The arguments for flexibility in our train, advise, and assist mission are varied and diverse, but the very existence of the Islamic State might supersede them all. As much as getting into Iraq was an error, leaving as we did created a security vacuum and removed any diplomatic leverage we had with a leader operating in an incredibly complicated political environment. That painful lesson suggests a similarly rapid U.S. military exit from Afghanistan would be a mistake.

Call it insurance or enlightened self-interest, but a bit of patience and long-term strategic thinking could help ensure that our massive investments and sacrifices in Afghanistan were not made in vain. Despite well-documented blunders, we should capitalize on the chance to turn Afghanistan’s significant, but fragile gains into an American success story.

Political Interests. The conventional political wisdom right now suggests that — for understandable reasons — ours is a war-weary nation. That’s true to a point. But there is evidence of a growing willingness across the United States to support measures that are necessary to protect our security interests abroad, especially with respect to the mounting threat from the Islamic State. Yes, most Americans remain skeptical that our long military involvement in Afghanistan was worth it, but their numbers are diminishing.

And they might drop further if our leaders made this relatively straightforward case to the American public: Success in Afghanistan is within reach if we’re patient and operate with the goal of ‘permanent success’ in mind. We have made real security gains and the Afghan people have made momentous human gains, seeing their lives transform for the better since 2001. But the complete erosion of these fragile gains is possible if we depart too quickly. Because conditions are changing, we’re going to be patient in Afghanistan, ensuring we protect our security interests and the gains of our Afghan allies, especially Afghan women.

I suspect the much harder case would be to explain why, after the lessons we learned in Iraq, we make the same decisions in Afghanistan.

Moral Obligation. The American people rarely hear the words “thank you” for our constructive work abroad, but Afghanistan is a powerful exception. When Ghani visits Washington in late March, he will — repeatedly and forcefully — tell our entire country thank you. When I bring Afghan leaders to meet with members of Congress or place them in major public forums, the first and most emphatic thing they say is thank you.

They’re not thanking the United States for leaving, but for what they recognize as our immense sacrifice on their behalf. America’s general popularity in much of Afghanistan stems from what the people have seen with their own eyes: the shared efforts that transformed their lives and their nation. No group of people wishes for us to stay in Afghanistan more than the Afghans themselves, who know that our withdrawal will likely mean a slide back toward the days of Taliban rule and gender apartheid, away from their new, more open, emerging society.

It’s understandable that we lose track of this point, but Afghanistan and the Afghan people have come a remarkably long way since 2001. Once a country trapped by the hopeless reality of Taliban rule, Afghanistan is now a vigorous, if flawed democracy where even the poorest children have a chance to receive some education and women are increasingly able to claim their roles in the economic and public sphere.

The America I love stands by our allies, fights for women’s rights, seeks peace, and keeps its word. To do all of this in Afghanistan, we mustn’t prematurely withdraw on-the-ground support, especially when our Afghan friends are asking us to stay. Doing so will risk innumerable examples of progress purchased with American lives.

While I — and many like me — truly wish we could fully end our on-the-ground presence in Afghanistan before 2017, the reality of the world we live in suggests that we cannot do so responsibly. What’s now important in Afghanistan is to move forward in a manner that gives us and our Afghan friends the best shot at long-term success. Doing so will protect our self-interest, live up to our highest American ideals, do right by our allies, and honor our military and diplomatic professionals who have given so much to our cause in Afghanistan.

At many points in his presidency, Obama has been willing to adjust his policy based on changing conditions. I’m glad to see he seems to be doing the same in Afghanistan.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Scott Mackey is the director of the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People, a non-partisan coalition of U.S. and Afghan national security, foreign policy, and humanitarian leaders committed to preserving and protecting gains made in Afghanistan since 2001.