President Barack Obama Tuesday told Americans that he has decided to withdraw U.S. forces from war-torn Afghanistan because it is “finally time to turn the page,” and because it is an opportunity for diverse Afghans to strike a peace deal among their fractious tribal society.
“This year, we will bring America’s longest war to a responsible end,” he said, despite the Taliban’s continued attacks on the central government in Kabul.
But “wars do not end just because politicians say so,” said a dismissive statement from three GOP senators.
Obama “appears to have learned nothing from … his disastrous decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq,” said Sens. Kelly Ayotte, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham.
After Obama withdrew U.S. forces from a relatively peaceful Iraq in 2010, the local al-Qaida affiliate regained strength and helped push Iraq’s forces out of the western part of the country. Al-Qaida and its local allies are now holding territory only 30 minutes drive from the capital city, and anti-government protests in neighboring Syria escalated into a brutal civil war.
The war in Afghanistan is powered by Taliban Islamic forces, who are attacking the Kabul-based government that is composed of various tribal and ethnic groups, including some part of the important Pashtun group.
“It is difficult to see how we can succeed in Afghanistan when the President tells our enemies that our troops will leave by a date certain [in 2016] whether they have achieved our goals or not,” the senators wrote.
“The alternative [to withdrawal in 2016] was not war without end,” the senators wrote in their latter.
“It was a limited assistance mission to help the Afghan Security Forces preserve momentum on the battlefield and create conditions for a negotiated end to the conflict” between the government and the Taliban forces.
“The achievement of this goal, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, should be determined by conditions on the ground,” they wrote.
Obama was careful to dial down expectations for 2016 and after he leaves the White House. “We have struck significant blows against al-Qaida’s leadership, we have eliminated Osama bin Laden, and we have prevented Afghanistan from being used to launch attacks against our homeland,” said Obama.
“We have to recognize that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place. … The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans,” he said. “What the United States can do — what we will do — is secure our interests and help give the Afghans a chance, an opportunity to seek a long, overdue and hard-earned peace.” However, the U.S. will not supply any combat support after 2016, he suggested.
Instead, he said, “we’re finishing the job we started. … America’s combat mission will be over by the end of this year. Starting next year, Afghans will be fully responsible for securing their country,” he said.
“I’m confident that if we carry out this approach, we can not only responsibly end our war in Afghanistan and achieve the objectives that took us to war in the first place,” he said.
Even as U.S. force withdraw, “America will always keep our commitments to friends and partners who step up, and we will never waver in our determination to deny al-Qaida the safe haven that they had before 9/11,” he insisted.
Afghanistan has been at war since 1979, when Soviet forces occupied the country to prop up a local quasi-Marxist coup. Twenty years later, the beaten Soviets withdrew in a rush, and allowed the Taliban to win the resulting civil war.
Subsequently, the Taliban allowed its religious allies, al-Qaida, to plan and execute the 9/11 attack from bases in the country.
In Iraq, Obama withdrew all U.S. forces in 2010 — partly to meet a campaign trail commitment — amid relative peace enforced by U.S. soldiers and local allies.
Since then, the country’s ramshackle government has proved unable to maintain support among the minority Sunni population who claim the right to rule Iraq. “All wars end. The question is how they end [and] the war in Iraq has ended in tragedy,” the three senators wrote.