Ending America's Longest War

[ Posted Tuesday, May 27th, 2014 – 15:22 UTC ]

Today President Barack Obama announced the beginning of the end of America's longest war. This announcement was fully anticipated and therefore came as no surprise, seeing as how Obama was elected in large part to end two wars. He successfully withdrew all American troops from Iraq in 2011, and he announced today the schedule for withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan. From 32,000 current troops, we will draw down to 9,800 by the end of this year. This number will then shrink by half (to roughly 5,000) by the end of 2015. By the end of 2016, they will all be out (except possibly for a small force left for security, in the range of 1,000 troops or less). Thus will end a 15-year-long war effort -- the longest in American history.

The troop reduction schedule is not going to please everyone, of course. Second-guessing our war plans is routinely done by both sides of the political spectrum. "Too fast!" one side cries, while the other will reliably respond with "Not fast enough!" Part of this is partisan posturing, of course. But the inescapable fact is that the American public lost interest in this conflict a long time ago.

Afghanistan is rarely in the news these days, except when the president makes an unannounced visit to the troops, as he did this Memorial Day weekend. Other than photo ops, however, the war is out of sight and out of mind for most Americans (and for the media, as well). The public is war-weary, and has been for at least six or seven years now (almost half the time we've been in Afghanistan, in fact). Again, President Obama got elected -- in 2008 -- partly on his promise to end our two wars.

Of course, the neo-conservative hawks are angry that Obama has announced his withdrawal schedule. I would be willing to bet good money that I'll soon be seeing Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham on my television set denouncing the pullout strategy for some reason or another. It's what they do, after all, and it's why they get invited to speak on cable news shows.

What will be missing in these interviews, most likely, are two pertinent questions for those advocating keeping more troops in Afghanistan longer. The most important question is: "What could American troops accomplish in the next few years that they haven't been able to in the last 13 years?" Or to put it another way, what would their mission be? What could the American people reasonably expect to accomplish with an extra 5,000 or 10,000 troops in the next few years?

The second big question is why Obama leaving this rump force in Afghanistan is any different than what the neo-cons were calling for when we pulled out of Iraq? When Obama announced that the Iraqi government refused to exempt our soldiers from Iraqi law (the big sticking point in the negotiations for a continuing Status Of Forces Agreement between our two countries), and that therefore all American troops would be coming home, he was blasted for not doing exactly what he just announced for Afghanistan. It'd be pretty easy to go back to 2010 and 2011 and find some quotes from folks like Graham and McCain, denouncing the fact that America wasn't leaving 10,000 troops after the end of 2011. At the time, the hawks were calling for just such a training and anti-terrorist force to remain in Iraq -- precisely what Obama just announced in Afghanistan. If it is wrong to do so now, why was it the thing to do in Iraq three years ago? If it was right to do so then, then how can the hawks have any problem with Obama's announcement today?

To the anti-war folks, keeping any troops in Afghanistan one minute longer than necessary for their safety (in an immediate pullout) makes no sense. But that's been their position all along -- at least it has the benefit of consistency. Obama's announcement today is going to disappoint a lot of people who wanted to see every American in uniform come home by this December. They can also be expected to make their thoughts known, although they likely won't get as many invitations to say so on television ('twas always thus). Doves aren't as newsworthy, at least according to the media schedulers. But that doesn't make their position any less heartfelt, especially since most of the American public is closer to them than the "let's stay in Afghanistan indefinitely" idea.

Barack Obama doesn't get much credit for his handling of the end of America's two twenty-first century wars. He has disappointed people across the hawk/dove spectrum for various reasons. The doves really wanted all American troops home from both countries within a year of Obama taking office. Much to their disappointment, this did not happen. The hawks weren't very impressed with Obama's actions in Afghanistan, which is puzzling since he paid much more attention to this war than George W. Bush ever did. Obama sent two separate "surges" into Afghanistan, in fact, even though the first one was forgotten almost immediately by just about everyone. By the time he ordered the second surge in, he had tripled the number of American troops that were in the country when he took office. Even that didn't make him many friends among the hawks, though.

Ending wars, as Obama noted today, is a lot harder these days than starting them. There will be no "Victory in Afghanistan Day" to celebrate. George W. Bush tried to declare "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq woefully early, and look where that got him. There is no suicide of Hitler or atomic bomb blast to mark the end of either of our modern wars. There is no formal surrender on the decks of a battleship, or in the ruins of a bombed-out city. The asymmetric nature of both of these wars meant it was impossible to declare the enemy totally vanquished in the way we did at the end of World War II. But, on the bright side, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan ended as ignominiously as the American pullout from Vietnam.

President Obama ended the war in Iraq as soon as he was reasonably able to do so, both militarily and politically. The Iraq war's end was more absolute than the end of the war in Afghanistan will be. My guess is that while both the hawks and doves will have quite a bit to say about the timetable announced today, the American public will greet the news with a feeling of relief. No one can honestly say that America's withdrawal from Afghanistan is "precipitous" (a word used repeatedly when the Iraq pullout was announced) or "premature" -- by definition, it almost can't be, since we will have spent a full decade and a half there. The military will get exactly what it wants -- thousands of trainers and advisors for the next few years (which is also exactly what was being demanded by the hawks when we pulled out of Iraq). These troops will not be in combat roles, meaning the likelihood of casualties will decrease. That's a good thing, because it will mean far fewer fresh graves from the war in Afghanistan to be decorated by loved ones next Memorial Day -- and, hopefully, no new such graves in 2016.

Beyond the hawks and doves, the American public is ready for the troops to come home for good from Afghanistan -- a country appropriately called "the graveyard of empires." While politicians will be grinding various axes on television in the upcoming weeks, most Americans will be greeting the news with relief. Putting aside the arguments over what was accomplished in America's longest war, the feeling of the general public upon receipt of the news that we are leaving Afghanistan is easily summed up in one succinct phrase: "It's about time."

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


4 Comments on “Ending America's Longest War”

  1. [1] 
    goode trickle wrote:

    I agree that to some extent there is going to be some interesting political drama created by both sides in Washington over the announcement of the "end" of the Afghanistan conflict , most of it drummed up to support the corporate interests that bought them.

    I am somewhat disappointed over the overall ending to your summation on the situation. Going forward we hopefully will not have fresh combat graves to decorate, as you state, unfortunately you fail to mention that their will be plenty of fresh graves for decades to come as veterans continue to pay the price for a system that has steadfastly refused to treat veterans benefits and the psychological /physical maladies that come from actively participating in combat as a part of the war.

    I can most certainly guarantee that as everyone heaves their collective sighs of relief at the conflicts "end" congress and the president will not really be discussing the longer term casualties from the last two wars. I also can see that by 2016 that congress as a whole will be back to it's old tricks of raiding the veterans benefit funds to protect the interests of those who bought them, instead of those who fought for them and the media will cozy up to them and not ask the hard questions about the true costs of the war as that doesn't fit into the sound bite medium that is our media.

    Perhaps my world view is shaped by my experience as a veteran who every Memorial Day remembers his buddies who died in combat and then remembers his his buddies who died because of combat. I personally feel that any analysis worth it's salt on the subject of an ending conflict also carries analysis of the fact that, really, the conflict is far from over for many who fought in it and asks the questions of those who have the levers of power in their grasp "what are you going to do to stop these deaths ?".

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    goode trickle -

    I'm going to tackle the VA problem tomorrow. Probably not from the angle you're seeking, but just wanted you to know.

    Also, thanks for your service and I hope you had a good Memorial Day.



  3. [3] 
    akadjian wrote:

    My favorite line from the President's speech today on the subject:

    "For our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield."

    It's a good thing that he's reiterating a vision like this.


  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    akadjian -

    I agree, that was a powerful and important statement from an American president.


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