Setting the Record Straight on Obama’s Afghanistan Promises
The president has tried to rewrite his history in Afghanistan.
I have just one thing to add to the chorus of commentary on “The Obama Doctrine,” Jeffrey Goldberg’s incomparable interview with the president, published in the Atlantic, which will be a must-read on Obama’s foreign policy legacy for the next four decades.
Among the revelations revealing how little the president regrets and how proud he is of his Syria policy (a revelation which, amazingly, does not come from the Onion), Goldberg includes one line of revised history that must be firmly refuted.
In the second paragraph of the piece, Goldberg writes, “Obama entered the White House bent on getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan.” This has become a widespread and commonplace way of referring to Obama’s original foreign policy vision.
Goldberg is half right. Obama came into office determined to get out of Iraq. But I’m old enough to remember when Sen. Obama spoke very highly of the war in Afghanistan.
In fact, he campaigned on a pledge to rededicate our nation’s efforts to the “good war.” He wrote in 2007, “We must refocus our efforts on Afghanistan and Pakistan — the central front in our war against al Qaeda — so that we are confronting terrorists where their roots run deepest.”
He said on the campaign trail in 2008, “As president, I will make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win.” He promised at least two additional brigades of combat troops and an additional $1 billion in civilian assistance every year.
In 2009, when I worked for the Obama administration as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council, I saw no sign that the new team had any other intent than to follow through with the candidate’s actual words. They wanted to fix Afghanistan, partly to give themselves cover for withdrawing from Iraq. Afghanistan was supposed to prove, with foreign policy, that they were responsible.
Obama did not enter office bent on getting out of Afghanistan. He entered office bent on winning in Afghanistan. Those are different things. You can get out of a war anytime you like, so long as you don’t care what happens afterwards and are not fighting for anything terribly important. But Obama clearly and repeatedly said he cared, and said he believed that war was vitally important, which is why he wanted to win it, not end it.
Such hairs are worth splitting. These are the fine distinctions on which presidential legacies are judged. If Obama had truly campaigned on ending the war in Afghanistan regardless of the outcome or aftermath, then he would have come close to achieving his pledge. He has withdrawn almost all U.S. troops from the country with scant regard for Afghanistan’s security, the resurgence of the Taliban, or the expansion of the Islamic State to South Asia.
You could almost say that Obama is bravely refusing to act — that his cool rationality is triumphing over the relentless urge of the hapless foreign policy establishment to do something, an urge that (he believes) leads inevitably to getting mired in foreign entanglements. In other words, if you like Syria, you’ll love Afghanistan.
But Obama did not promise to remain uninvolved. He did not promise to end the war, withdraw U.S. forces, or reduce our exposure to a messy overseas gambit of peripheral concern. He promised to win an important war. By that standard, Obama has plainly failed.
That is almost certainly why the president and his advisers are eager to rewrite history and change the standard against which he will be judged. Goldberg is not the only one to claim incorrectly that Obama campaigned on ending the war in Afghanistan. He quotes one of the president’s closest advisors to the same effect:
[Obama] was particularly mindful of promising victory in conflicts he believed to be unwinnable. “If you were to say, for instance, that we’re going to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban and build a prosperous democracy instead, the president is aware that someone, seven years later, is going to hold you to that promise,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, and his foreign-policy amanuensis, told me not long ago.
Rhodes’ comment is unbelievable. Obama, according to the Rhodes myth, was too realistic, too pragmatic to promise something so idealistic and fanciful as the defeat of the Taliban and investment in Afghanistan’s future. But that is exactly what the president promised in 2007 and 2008, and that is exactly the standard we, and future historians, should use to judge his performance.
Obama should be judged for campaigning on one policy (winning the war) and implementing another (a half-hearted surge followed by a premature withdrawal). He should be judged for repudiating the democratic mandate posed by his own election and failing to do what the American people voted for in 2008. And he should be judged for his mendacity as commander-in-chief, easing out of a war by pretending he never promised to win it.
Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. Twitter: @PaulDMiller2