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Obama's Change of Course
Delay of U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan shows regional instability
By An Gang | NO. 46 NOVEMBER 12, 2015


U.S. soldiers fire a 120mm mortar during an exercise on forward operating base Gamberi in the Laghman Province of Afghanistan December 24, 2014 (CFP)


Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he will realign his troop withdrawal plan from Afghanistan, maintaining the current number of 9,800 U.S. forces through most of 2016. The new strategy will leave 5,500 U.S. troops in place by the time President Obama leaves office in January 2017, meaning his successor will inherit responsibility for both the troops' security and also the larger, complicated legacy of continued U.S. involvement in the country.

The troops are reportedly to be stationed throughout Afghanistan: in Kabul, Bagram, Jalalabad in the east, and Kandahar in the south. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani welcomed Obama's commitment and said that Afghanistan and the United States will continue to strengthen cooperation based on common interests and mitigate future risks. 

Against his wishes

Obama explained that while the Afghan military has made significant gains, it is still not as strong as it needs to be to provide functional security to the Afghan public.

"The security situation is still very fragile, and in some places there is risk of deterioration," Obama cautioned. He warned that if the military fails, it will threaten the security of all Afghanis.

The recent decision is a major political reversal from Obama's campaign promises that he would withdraw all but a small U.S.-embassy based force in the capital, Kabul.

As an important part of the United States' strategy against terrorism, the Afghanistan war is the longest overseas military engagement that the United States has ever been involved in. The war efforts have cost the United States nearly $1 trillion and have claimed the lives of more than 2,000 American soldiers.

During the presidential campaign season of 2007-08, then U.S. Senator Barack Obama pledged to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as soon as possible. After taking office, the Obama administration announced a New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan in response to the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan and its relevance to Pakistan.

On May 2, 2012, the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden being killed by U.S. Special Forces in Pakistan, Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan. After signing a strategic partnership agreement with the Afghan Government, Obama said at the Bagram Air Force Base that the war in Afghanistan would soon be over.

In May 2014, Obama announced his plan to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan. According to the military strategy, NATO combat forces would withdraw from Afghanistan before the end of 2014, and the United States would reduce its forces to 9,800 by the end of 2015. All U.S. forces would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, and only 1,000 contingency troops would be stationed in Kabul to safeguard the U.S. Embassy.

"It is time to turn the page on a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq," Obama said at the time. "Americans have learned that it is harder to end wars than to begin them, yet this is how wars end in the 21st century."

However, over the past year, the situation in Afghanistan has not developed as the Obama administration had hoped. Taliban militants have continued to attack Afghanistan's northern region of Kunduz, with government forces suffering serious setbacks.

Moreover, under the often inefficient and perhaps incompetent Afghan Government, the security forces are largely unprofessional, and have limited power. Enormous pieces of Afghan land are still under the control of local tribal forces or different factions of Taliban militants.

In September 2015, by temporarily controlling Kunduz City, the capital of Afghanistan's Kunduz area, the Taliban gained the biggest victory since its initial collapse 14 years ago. This highlights the political instability that still exists in Afghanistan. In fact, statistics provided by the Pentagon show that this year nearly 4,700 Afghan soldiers have been killed with 7,800 injured, a significant increase from the previous year.

Larger context

At the same time, the regional situation in the Middle East is undergoing the most profound changes since President Obama took office. The White House has subsequently had to put far more efforts toward addressing the threats brought by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria as well as Russia's military intervention in Syria.

The Obama administration is extremely worried that if Afghanistan is in chaos, it is possible for the ISIS and Taliban to join forces. Further troubling is that the United States' major rivals in the region--Iran, Syria and Russia--may also expand their cooperation, which would result in the total collapse of Washington's Middle East strategy.

Obama's change of course in regards to keeping troops in Afghanistan may also be motivated by domestic political considerations. The U.S. military community was initially unhappy with the Obama administration's defense budget cuts and they wanted to keep manpower in Afghanistan. According to President George W. Bush's former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, Obama's slowing down the pace of troop withdrawal may now reduce the number of defense-related topics Republicans could use to try to attack Democrats ahead of the 2016 general election.

Many Republicans have already accused Obama for his "hasty" withdrawal of troops from Iraq, saying that it is to blame for the instability of the country. In order to try to cope with the disastrous situation since the rise of extremist organizations like ISIS, Obama has sent some U.S. troops back to Iraq.

There are both strengths and weaknesses in Obama's foreign policies. The nuclear deal reached with Iran, and the ending of protracted hostilities with Cuba, are clearly successful legacies Obama should be proud of.

Washington's Middle East policy however can hardly be seen as a success. While President Obama hoped to be seen as someone who ended America's ongoing wars, the volatile situation in the Middle East may make that impossible.

Great import

The most recent withdrawal plan has added new variables into the Afghan situation. It also brought uncertainty to the negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan Government, and now the Afghan people worry that the Taliban may launch more attacks against innocents in retaliation for continued American intervention.

Still, the majority of the Afghan people support their government's efforts to fight extremism and restore order. According to the Asia Foundation's 2014 survey, almost 87 percent of Afghans had high expectations and a positive view of the army, and 73 percent felt the same way about the police. Undeterred by grinding poverty, corruption, and criminality, almost 55 percent of Afghans in the survey thought their country was moving in the right direction.

According to an article written by Michael Van Wyk issued in Foreign Policy, the White House and the U.S. military are now confounded by a kind of "sunk cost effect," worrying that the United States' reduction of military and economic support to Afghanistan may undermine the progress the country had made and result in the expansion of both the Taliban and ISIS.

Where the Afghan situation will go is of great concern. The rough turbulence in Afghanistan could encourage a rebound of extremist forces worldwide, further compound the crisis in the Middle East, as well as spread violence to South Asia and Central Asia.

As its neighbor, China has a great stake in the stability of Afghanistan. China has always been an important force in supporting Afghanistan's national reconciliation and construction. Intergovernmental relations between the two countries have seen rapid development in recent years. In the meantime, China also keeps in close communication with the United States on the security situation in Afghanistan.

Fortunately, as both China and the United States pin their hopes on a more stable political situation in Afghanistan, their interaction on the issue is much more cooperative than competitive.

The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review  and a researcher at the Pangoal Institution

Copyedited by Mara Lee Durrell 

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