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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Hope fades on Obama’s vow to bring troops home before presidency ends

From The Washington Post:

In meeting after meeting this spring and summer, President Obama insisted that the last American troops in Afghanistan would return home by the end of his presidency, definitively ending the longest war in American history.

Obama and his closest foreign policy advisers laid out the reasons for his military commanders. Keeping as many as 10,000 troops in Afghanistan indefinitely at a cost of as much as $10 billion to $15 billion a year wasn’t politically feasible or financially responsible. There were more pressing domestic priorities that needed money. The country faced bigger threats.

Then, in August, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came in with one more plan to maintain a counterterrorism force of as many as 5,000 troops in Afghanistan to prevent a reemergence of al-Qaeda and to battle Islamic State fighters seeking a foothold in the country. Dempsey’s plan was a quick, back-of-the-envelope exercise, according to senior administration officials.

This time, though, Obama didn’t dismiss it. “I think that’s an argument that can be made to the American people,” Obama said, according to a senior administration official who took part in the meeting and who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Obama had come to office with a deep skepticism of the U.S. military’s ability to bring order to broken and chaotic societies. His experiences over the course of his two terms in office had reinforced his instincts to the point that the phrase “no military solution” had become a mantra that he deployed not just to describe Afghanistan, but a half-dozen other conflicts in places like Libya, Syria and Ukraine.

This is Obama’s mind-set as he weighs a decision on whether to leave troops in Afghanistan past his presidency. It is a choice that would contravene a long-held personal desire and central tenet of his election campaigns — a definitive end to the wars he had inherited. His struggle shows how a president who once described war as an “expression of human folly” has come to wield force on battlefields where America’s interests often seem peripheral to him and where its enemies are brutal and determined.

Similar dilemmas had consumed his predecessors. Bill Clinton, after an agonizing debate, didn’t deploy troops to stop genocide in Rwanda, but he dispatched U.S. forces to halt ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo. In the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush sought to stamp out the terror threat by toppling governments and trying to build democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama has defined American interests more narrowly than Bush or Clinton, convinced that the country’s biggest and costliest mistakes over the past 50 years have been the product of American military overreach.

His hesitancy to commit U.S. forces is especially evident in the way he talks about America’s military might. “His rhetoric is not in the traditional American vein,” said Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and history professor at Boston University. “It comes from a different place — one of ambivalence, complexity and a reluctance to sound crusading notes.”

Obama has launched military strikes in seven countries. He ended a war in Iraq only to recommit thousands of American troops there when Islamic State insurgents routed the U.S.-trained Iraqi army in Mosul. A few weeks later, he ordered the U.S. military to start bombing Islamic State strongholds in Syria.

Afghanistan has been the one constant that spans his two terms in office. As an inexperienced president, Obama decided to send more than 50,000 American troops into Afghanistan in an attempt to blunt the Taliban’s momentum, bolster the Afghan army and improve the prospects for reconciliation in a country that had experienced three decades of civil war.

Nearly seven years later, the leaders of Afghanistan’s new unity government were still feuding, Afghan security forces were losing ground to insurgents and the prospects for reconciliation with the Taliban seemed bleak.

In early October, Obama summed up one of the biggest lessons he’s taken from America’s interventions in these fractured societies. “What we’ve learned over the last 10, 12, 13 years is that unless we can get the parties on the ground to agree to live together in some fashion, then no amount of U.S. military engagement will solve the problem,” Obama said at a news conference.

What kind of difference could U.S. troops make in such deeply divided and chaotic countries? What were the risks of leaving? These were the questions that Obama would have to answer in Afghanistan. They were the sorts of questions that had come to define his presidency.

One year ago, Obama laid out his philosophy for how and when to use American military power in a carefully constructed speech at the U.S. Military Academy.

He had touched on the subject in previous addresses: before sending troops to Afghanistan, launching airstrikes in Syria, plunging the U.S. military back into Iraq. The subject had been the focus of his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize address and a major speech on drone warfare.

The speech at West Point was supposed to be the definitive word.

The United States would continue to use force unilaterally “when our core interests demand it — when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger,” Obama said. This was the rationale driving Obama’s drone campaign and Special Operations raids.

These sorts of operations were low cost but limited in what they could achieve. Often they provoked fury and resentment overseas.

To bring order to places such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and Iraq, the United States needed to train allies on the ground, Obama said. The centerpiece of the president’s strategy to address this larger problem was a $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund that would help the nation recruit, train and equip local forces.

Today the strategy that Obama outlined at West Point is in tatters. Congress gave Obama only $1.3 billion of the $5 billion he requested in 2015 to train local partners. Senior congressional staffers complained that the White House and Pentagon could never explain how and where they planned to spend all that money.

Even when there was money to build local forces, America’s allies, many of whom were beholden to corrupt or sectarian governments, frequently lacked the will to fight. Three weeks after Obama’s West Point speech, lightly armed Islamic State rebels seized Mosul, crushing Iraqi army units that had been the recipients of years of training and billions in aid and equipment. Then U.S.-backed forces in Yemen fell apart when that country dissolved into civil war. In Syria, the $500 million U.S. training and equipment program has produced only four trained fighters.

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