President Obama announced his decision to keep U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of his term, reversing his prior, stated desire to wind down U.S. military involvement in that country before leaving office. The timeline gave way in the face of facts on the ground. It was the right decision.
Let me set forth two stipulations to this admittedly sweeping conclusion. First, few people know what would need to be known to evaluate this decision, let alone make this decision. The habit of some media to poll on such issues strikes me as ridiculous. Whenever I hear some Republicans reflexively criticize President Obama, I wonder if they could find Afghanistan on a map. But, President Obama has as much information as anyone and, more to the point, we all know he would have very much liked to have made a different decision. He wanted “ended two wars” in his biography, but the situation required a different decision.
Second, Obama’s decision doesn’t mean it will be vindicated by history. None of us can see into the future. No one, no matter how much information they have, can predict the way future events will unfold. We can predict some things, for example, it was foreseeable that going into Iraq, even if that war had turned out better, would strengthen Iran in the region. But, moral decision making is made on the basis of information and options at a particular time. In other contexts, President Obama and other liberals are fond of saying they are “on the right side of history.” It is a foolish, and also a Stalinist, sensibility. It is time to retire that phrase and the mindset behind it.
People understandably worry that staying in Afghanistan is the military and political equivalent of throwing good money after bad. But, our precipitous withdrawal from Iraq shows that hard-win gains can be lost if transitions from U.S. led military establishments to local-led military establishments are not smooth and coherent. By all accounts, the Afghans are taking the lead in the fight for their own country, unlike what we saw in Iraq, where government forces melted in the face is ISIS. Supporting the Afghan forces in keeping some semblance of peace in their country is not an ignoble endeavor.
People also worry that our commitment to keeping troops in Afghanistan will result in an open-ended commitment, that there will always be a danger of Taliban resurgence, and that we might have to keep troops past 2017. Of course, the U.S. still has troops n South Korea because the threat from North Korea has not diminished all these decades after the cessation of hostilities there, and we still have troops in Germany, even though the Soviet Union is no longer in existence. With great power status comes great power responsibilities, and we should not shy away from meeting those responsibilities.
Militant Islamicists remain a threat, not only to U.S. security but to U.S. values. The Taliban really are committed to a kind of society that is repulsive to humane civilization, virtually enslaving women, destroying cultural artifacts from other faiths, imposing a harsh form of law, restricting personal freedoms to nil, and fomenting violence at home and abroad. The only real doubt I have about Obama’s decision is the fear that continued U.S. involvement might serve to unite different groups of extremists against the common, American foe. It is a horrible thing to recognize, but the best outcome for the U.S. and for the Afghan people may be if the extremists spend most of their time killing each other.
We have learned a lot since the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were launched in the wake of 9/11. We have learned that we cannot impose democracy on a people with no experience of democratic norms. We have learned that chaos can be even more miserable for a people than a regime that is deeply tyrannical. We have learned that the fight within Islam, whether it is to be a fundamentalist and extremist force in the world or an engaged, humanizing force, is a fight that may take a generation to sort out, and a fight in which the U.S. and its allies are not the lead players. We can help in that fight but we cannot win it. Our role is to support moderate, modern, humane and relatively humane regimes throughout the Mideast. President Obama’s decision seems to recognize that supporting role and commits the country to fulfilling it. The fact that he would have loved nothing more to make a different decision is a strong piece of evidence that this is the right decision.