Obama’s Inevitable Failed Legacy in Afghanistan
January 16, 2017
The Pentagon announced on January 12 that 300 U.S. marines will return to Helmand province in a final reminder of President Barack Obama’s inability to make progress towards ending the so-called “good war” in Afghanistan. The current situation, however, is not surprising given Obama’s military and nation-building policies were designed to fail, driven as they were by political expediency rather than the long-term interests of the Afghan state and its people.
To former U.S. lawmaker and presidential candidate Ron Paul, the fiasco in Helmand signifies the type of hubristic delusional decision-making that seems to contaminate every U.S. administration.
“Why are the Marines needed in the Helmand Province? Because although the foolish and counterproductive 15-year U.S. war in Afghanistan was long ago lost, Washington cannot face this fact,” Paul argued in an op-ed published in Tulsa World. “Last year the Taliban controlled 20 percent of the province. This year they control 85 percent of the province. So billions more must be spent and many more lives will be lost.”
When Obama first unveiled his Afghan strategy it took his supporters and observers across the world by surprise. On December 1, 2009, the former Illinois senator announced he was sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan just nine days ahead of accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, where he delivered a foreboding lecture that served to rationalize his decision to escalate a war many experts thought was unwinnable.
“The concept of a ‘just war’ emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence,” Obama claimed.
To the tens of thousands of Afghans who lost loved ones during the past 7 to 8 years the premise is certainly debatable as to whether any of said conditions were met to justify Obama’s misguided Afghan strategy, which by every available metric has failed to strengthen the two key pillars of stability: security and governance.
The United States has now spent more than $115 billion on reconstruction since 2002, some $87 billion of which was authorized during the Obama years. Nearly 60% of spending was dedicated to security and the remainder was spent on governance, economic development, and humanitarian aid – with little to show in return.
In terms of security, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported in January of 2016 that the Taliban controlled more territory than at any time since 2001. Ten months later, U.S. military leaders conceded that they were concerned by the rising numbers of casualties and desertions among Afghan security forces. Moreover, according to an Asia Foundation survey released in 2016, nearly 70% of Afghans sometimes, often, or always fear for their personal safety, “the highest level in over a decade.”
With respect to governance, 61% of Afghans say they still feel corruption is a major problem, an 8 point spike versus 2009, while only 29% said the country is moving in the right direction “the lowest level of optimism recorded in the Survey since it began in 2004,” while Afghan perceptions of government performance also reached a nadir. According to Transparency International’s (TI) 2015 corruption index, Afghanistan remained the second most corrupt country on the planet – just as it was when Obama took over.
The question is: what happened? The first problem is that Obama’s escalation of the war was a decision he arrived at after reviewing a number of options – none of which included wholesale extraction. The answer was always military intensification, and the only issue that plagued the Nobel peace prize-winner was determining exactly how many Americans to throw into harm’s way. Obama rejected Vice President Joe Biden’s idea of a more limited counterterror effort and, lo and behold, perhaps Uncle Joe had it right all along.
Complicating the matter was Obama’s decision to publicly announce a deadline. Former assistant secretary of state and White House advisor James Dobbins told this author in an interview that the president likely felt political pressure to do so.
“I don’t think the President [Obama] would have set a deadline if he didn’t feel the need to make some concession to his domestic critics and the strong elements within his constituency that have doubts about the wisdom of the commitment in Afghanistan,” Dobbins said.
Dobbins also warned that setting the deadline would give insurgents and their benefactors in Pakistan hope to wait out the American occupation. Seven years after the interview, it appears the former envoy’s prophecy has, unfortunately, been fulfilled.
Obama also made the mistake of outsourcing his so-called AfPak strategy to a bunch of establishment think tankers led by ex-CIA officials. The White House then recycled a failed Vietnam-era counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine that required more than 100,000 troops and at least ten years to implement – not the 30,000 troops and 18 months in Obama’s plan. COIN was also inadvisable in countries with an unpopular host nation government and neighboring states that offered insurgent sanctuaries.
When COIN failed the U.S. shifted to a more aggressive offensive approach, thereby abandoning the population-centric strategy that hinged on protecting Afghan civilians and winning “hearts and minds.” The new strategy led by General David Petraeus focused on body count, which called for loosening the rules of engagement and intensifying airstrikes, drone strikes, and night raids. Unfortunately, with the more kinetic strategy came higher numbers of “collateral damage.”
Obama also significantly expanded the U.S. drone program beyond George W. Bush’s wildest dreams in both Pakistan and Afghanistan in the face of studies that concluded the strikes were counterproductive and killed more civilians than militants. UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, and a number of human rights organizations have argued that the CIA targeted killing program violates international law. Obama was against waterboarding but, evidently, comfortable with so-called drone “pilots” playing judge, jury and executioner in one fell swoop by pushing a button from a control room in places like Nevada, a practice the UN Special Rapporteur warned could foster a “Playstation” mentality to killing.
There is trepidation among many Americans about the competency of the incoming administration as we draw closer to January 20. According to a Gallup survey released on January 13, a historically high 51% of those polled disapprove of the way President-elect Donald Trump is handling his transition into the White House, while 44% believe his cabinet appointments are poor or below average. What this means for Afghanistan is unknown – but it is hard to imagine that things could get any worse.