President Barack Obama was finally forced to bow to the inevitable today when he announced a halt to the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan and revised plans that will keep some 5,500 U.S. troops in the country even after his term ends in early 2017. For a president who came into office on a pledge to end the war in Afghanistan, today's admission that he won't be able to keep that promise must be counted as a significant foreign policy setback that could tarnish his legacy. At the same time, however, given the military and political realities on the ground in Afghanistan, it's hard to see how he had much choice in the matter.

It's no secret that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan hasn't been going well lately. Last month, a resurgent Taliban captured the strategic northern city of Kunduz after several thousand U.S.-equipped and trained Afghan Army troops were routed by a relative handful of insurgents. The militants managed to hold on in the city for nearly three weeks before they were finally driven back by U.S. airstrikes and government reinforcements rushed to the scene from Kabul. During the fighting, U.S. warplanes accidentally struck a hospital operated by the French nonprofit Doctors Without Borders, killing 22 people, including children and 12 medical staff.

Advertisement

The Taliban's assault on Kunduz revealed continuing weaknesses in the Afghan security forces that aren't likely to be fixed by the time the departure of most U.S. forces is set to be completed next year. It's doubtful that the Afghans would have been able to retake Kunduz on their own, and the same goes for other provincial capitals in the country threatened by militants, as well as countless smaller towns and villages. The U.S. learned from bitter experience in Iraq that a too precipitous withdrawal from regions where radical Islamist extremists are still operating risks having a decade's progress toward political and economic stability quickly reversed.

Granted, it's far easier to start a war than to end one, and the war in Afghanistan was not of Mr. Obama's making. In hindsight, it's easy to second-guess whether the U.S. would be where it is now if the president had conducted the war there differently. But the fact is that the war in Afghanistan was never going to be an easy conflict to win. The country's remoteness, its inhospitable terrain, its entrenched ethnic, religious and sectarian divides and, most of all, its long history of stubborn resistance to foreign military occupation all militated against a quick or neat end to the U.S. involvement there.

For some time now, Mr. Obama's top national security advisers and military commanders have been telling him that a December 2016 deadline for leaving Afghanistan was unrealistic. Afghan security forces overall may be more capable now than they were when he took office, but that doesn't mean they can defend the country without American help. And it could take another decade at least for the situation to become stable enough so that they can.

In the current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Mr. Obama has a far more politically astute and reliable partner in Kabul than his predecessor, the mercurial Hamid Karzai, who former President George W. Bush was forced to deal with. Mr. Ghani, who took office in 2014, at least recognizes the need to tamp down rampant government corruption, improve services, and work for political reconciliation among Afghanistan's ethnic and sectarian factions. But despite the fact that Mr. Ghani's election marked the first peaceful transfer of power in modern Afghan history, the country has no tradition of democratic elections, and asserting the legitimacy of the central government Mr. Ghani heads could be a long, uphill slog.

Moreover, Mr. Obama has one major headache in Afghanistan that his predecessor never faced — the rise of the Islamic State, which was born amid the wars in Syria and Iraq but over the last year has established a presence in Afghanistan that is bringing a new level of brutality and viciousness to the conflict unmatched even by the Taliban. In addition to beheadings and mass executions, villagers fleeing ISIS-controlled areas tell of villagers being blindfolded, tortured and blown apart with explosives or burned in vats of boiling oil.

The U.S. has tried hard keep its distance from Syria's and Iraq's struggles against the Islamic State, but it may be only a matter of time before we are forced to confront it in Afghanistan. But it will be left up to a future president to figure out whether and how to fight that war.

President Obama bowed to the inevitable in deciding to keep troops in Afghanistan past the end of his term.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement