President Obama made it official Wednesday: The war in Afghanistan has yet to be won, despite nearly 15 years of fighting. The president who came into office vowing to extricate U.S. troops from that country and Iraq will leave office with his promise unfulfilled.
Mr. Obama had hoped to reduce the troop level in Afghanistan from the current 9,800 to 5,500 by year’s end. Instead, 8,400 will be left in the country when he exits the White House.
Compared to the more than 100,000 U.S. troops assigned to Afghanistan at the height of the war, these numbers are small. But they are nevertheless significant, especially for the soldiers and families who have borne — and continue to bear — the costs of duty. We owe them.
The news is not in the numbers, however, but rather in the acknowledgment that after so many years of painstaking struggle by U.S. soldiers and civilian workers, at a huge cost to American taxpayers, it’s still not possible to declare “mission accomplished” for a task that began in October of 2001 with a U.S. invasion.
Mr. Obama tried to put the best face on it, saying considerable progress has been made to ensure that Afghanistan would not remain a safe haven for al Qaida, the Taliban or other terrorists. He’s right about that. The presence of American soldiers and civilians has done much to pacify a lawless country and give its people a better chance of peace than they’ve had for more than a generation.
As Mr. Obama declared, it is a better place than it was.
But there is also no denying that, despite this progress, the president’s planned draw-down of troops is being scaled back due to a Taliban resurgence and the slow pace of improvement by the Afghan military.
Mr. Obama noted that 2,200 American soldiers and civilians have been killed in Afghanistan. The sad prospect is that more will inevitably follow. By one estimate, U.S. taxpayers have paid $750 billion in direct costs to prosecute the war and build schools, roads and other improvements, an astonishing sum that grows by the day.
No doubt many Americans would like to declare, Enough! We need that money here at home, and there’s no need to extend the presence of American forces in harm’s way in a country with such a troubled history. Yet it would be a shame to abandon the U.S. commitment after so much sacrifice has been made.
The threat of terrorism in an Afghanistan left to stand alone must not be discounted.
Al Qaida cannot be allowed to reestablish a safe haven. The Islamic State’s effort to expand its own presence must be squelched.
The Afghan government needs more time to build up its military capacity. It is getting stronger, albeit too slowly, but is not yet ready to face these threats by itself.
The prolonged war in Afghanistan, the longest in U.S. history, is yet another reminder that it is easier to get into war than to get out, especially when no thought is given to an exit plan and no realistic estimate of the ultimate cost is provided to the public.
Considering the precedent of Vietnam, no such reminder should have been necessary.
Those issues still roil the debate over U.S. military involvement in Syria. Many voices have called for an upgraded American presence in that part of the Middle East, but the examples of Afghanistan and Iraq argue against an expanded American role.
That is especially true while we are still fighting elsewhere with an overburdened military facing too many tasks and a shrinking budget.
We should finish the fights we are still involved in before starting others.