In response to what he called a “fragile” security situation in Afghanistan, President Obama recently announced plans to leave about 5,500 U.S. troops there when he leaves office.
Many of us treat the battles in the birthplace of 9/11 like most other foreign policy issues — something for Washington to worry about. But we ought to pay more attention.
Our troops are still in harm’s way. It’s still a dangerous part of the world, and there are no guarantees that squabbles over there won’t spill over here. So what should we make of Obama’s decision not to call it a day in Afghanistan?
Interestingly enough, pundits did not always give the answers you’d expect. Conservative scholar Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute declared the president’s half-measures in the country have “charted a course toward yet another disaster in South Asia.” But liberal Tom Hayden of the Peace and Justice Research Center was no happier, complaining, “It’s time to strip the Obama sticker off my car.” He wants the troops out altogether.
On the other hand, the very left-leaning Sen. Bernie Sanders supported the president’s decision. Lisa Curtis, a regional expert at right-leaning Heritage Foundation, agreed. “Obama has made the right choice in extending the U.S. troop presence in the country,” she wrote.
There’s a reason, though, that the politics of the experts in this case says so little about their comments. The political stakes in the president’s decision are pretty small. Polls show that a majority of American on both sides of the political aisle support continuing a U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
Disagreements among opinion-makers reflect more the debate over what happens next in Afghanistan than the specifics of the president’s decision. On the one side are analysts, who, no matter how they frame their views, generally agree the U.S. needs to stick around and probably do more. That view is shared by many worldwide, including most NATO countries, as well as Afghanistan’s most important neighbors, Pakistan and India.
On the opposing side, whether they support troop withdrawal or not, are those looking for a way out. No one is debating that the situation in Afghanistan could deteriorate badly again: The Taliban would like to come back. Al-Qaida would love to raise its flag again. The Islamic State would like to supplant them both.
Given their druthers, there is no reason to believe Afghanistan couldn’t once again become as dangerous as it was on Sept. 10, 2001. The question is whether there’s anything America can do about it.
In the military, there is a standard for measuring whether or not it makes sense to try a plan. It’s called the suitable, feasible, acceptable test. Your plan is suitable if it will actually solve the problem. It’s feasible if you have the resources and it can be done. It’s acceptable if the people who have to support it are willing to do so.
Americans are over the wave of anti-interventionism and isolation that swirled around the country after the anguish of the Iraq War. They have now seen retreating and indifferent leadership and how both leave matters just as appalling as if you tried to invade every country. They’re ready to support a plan that makes sense.
While the picture isn’t pretty in Afghanistan, the Afghans have shown they’re willing to fight for their future. They want and deserve our support.
That leaves the question of whether there is a suitable plan to get there from here. Unfortunately, Obama doesn’t have one. But leaving U.S. troops in the country gives the next president a chance to craft one.
Coming up with a sustainable strategy, however, will demand more than just addressing the troop situation in Afghanistan. The next occupant of the Oval Office will face grave security challenges in Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific. The new president will also have to rebuild the military to make it equal to the task.
What Obama’s decision mostly tells the next president is that Americans are ready to lead again. And that, at least, is good news.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is vice president of the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy and the E. W. Richardson Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.