President Obama’s Afghan policy has been decidedly mixed. Upon coming to power in 2009, he had vowed to “finish the job” in Afghanistan— after almost eight years, the job isn’t done. As he prepares to exit the Oval office in a few months, the country remains in a precarious situation. However, during his presidency, the United States has overseen the first democratic transition in Afghanistan’s history, and U.S. and Afghan forces are countervailing Taliban efforts to retake the country. Thus, Obama’s legacy in the region is not black or white, but has shades of grey.

On two separate occasions in 2009, President Obama authorized sending additional American troops to Afghanistan in response to a resurgence of Taliban and Al-Qaeda violence in the country. Obama’s job was made more challenging by his differences with then Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Additionally, Obama periodically had disagreements with U.S. military commanders on the general rules of engagement, overall strategy, and the required force levels in Afghanistan. Early in his administration, Afghan policy muddled on.

In October 2015, realizing the risks of leaving Afghanistan unattended, President Obama decided to retain 9,800 U.S. troops in the country. Troop numbers are scheduled to dwindle to 5,500 in 2017. The President emphasized that the American combat mission in Afghanistan was over, and the troops that remain will be focused on “training Afghan forces, and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda.”

This decision raised more questions than answers. Most importantly, can the United States simultaneously undertake counterterrorism operations and train the Afghan forces with only 5,500 troops in 2017? What happens after that?  Similar concerns have been raised by the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell.

In terms of battle-readiness, the Afghan forces have numerous limitations and are not ready to take over military operations from American forces. The capture of Kunduz by Taliban at the end of September 2015, and a long-drawn fight by Afghan forces to regain control, reflected the gaps in their readiness. Operational weaknesses of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) include deficiency in weaponry, lack of training, and serious resource constraints.

The United States is to be commended for facilitating a relatively smooth democratic transition in Afghanistan in 2014, and ensuring a peaceful but tenuous transfer of power to current president Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah. Had Afghanistan witnessed a debacle at that stage, it would have again spiraled into chaos. For the time being Afghanistan’s political institutions are hanging on, but just barely.

Security-wise, the American performance does not seem very impressive. U.S. troops are finding it extremely difficult to transfer operations to ANSF. The under-trained Afghan security forces are also facing challenges such as desertion, despite some instances of successful operations. Militarily, Obama has not been able to achieve what he had set out to. Even today, many rural parts of Afghanistan act as safe havens for groups such as the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. The threat seems more pressing in light of the growing presence of the Islamic State, or ISIS, in the region. Al Qaeda has not been defeated (except for the killing of Osama bin Laden), and the Taliban insurgency is raging.

Although the decision to extend U.S. presence in Afghanistan till 2017 is a reversal from his earlier announcement, there is a silver lining. Had Obama prematurely withdrawn all troops and fulfilled the “zero option”, which was temporarily on the table, the situation would likely have plunged into disarray.

On a positive note, Obama’s Afghanistan legacy can be seen as being aimed at avoiding a chaotic future or abandoning the country at its most crucial stage. By doing so, Obama may have avoided repeating the mistake committed in Iraq in 2011. After withdrawing American troops in 2011, the United States had to send its troops and advisers back to manage the ISIS menace. Continuing American presence in Afghanistan will add a level of predictability to the country’s future, and help avoid an Iraq-type situation. Obama must be appreciated for his prudence in staying in Afghanistan, as opposed to authorizing a full withdrawal just to score political points.

What course the war in Afghanistan takes will be decided by a future president’s decision to reaffirm American commitment or pull out. Despite President Obama’s best intentions, he has learnt that it is sometimes harder to end a war than to start one.


Editors’ note: Last week, President Obama kicked off his final year as president with the annual State of the Union Address. The speech seemed an auspicious time to ask questions about the President’s legacy, and for the current group of SAV Visiting Fellows to reflect on the consequence of American policies in South Asia during this period. In this four-part series titled “Obama’s Legacy in South Asia,” Hamzah Rifaat will explore the Obama administration’s drone policy in Pakistan’s tribal areas—Did they stop terror, or did they fan the flames of extremism? Or maybe both? Aditi Malhotra‘s article will examine U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and their impact on regional stability. Amina Afzal will be writing from Pakistan on whether the Obama administration tilted towards India, especially in the nuclear realm. And finally, Tridivesh Singh will look at whether President Obama was able to dehyphenate U.S. policy towards India and Pakistan, and what the rebalance has meant for South Asia.

Hopefully these articles will contribute to a vigorous debate in India, Pakistan, and Washington, D.C. 


Image: Dvidshub, Flickr

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