Editorials

A smart about-face on pullout from Afghanistan

President Obama announces Thursday he will keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan when he leaves office in 2017. From left: Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Vice President Joe Biden.
President Obama announces Thursday he will keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan when he leaves office in 2017. From left: Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Vice President Joe Biden. Sipa USA

President Obama has just flip-flopped on Afghanistan. Good for him.

On Thursday, the president announced that he’d leave 5,500 U.S. troops in that country when he leaves office in January 2017. He’d previously planned to leave 1,000 — a bare minimum for embassy protection and a few other security roles.

The decision presumably didn’t come easy. If there’s such a thing as an Obama doctrine in military matters, it consists of doing the opposite of what George W. Bush did, especially ending the two wars that Bush started.

Obama has summed up his foreign policy as “Don’t do stupid stuff.” But a president who lets his predecessor’s actions define his own — even in reverse — is bound to do some stupid stuff himself.

The United States abandoned Afghanistan in the 1990s, after it helped drive Soviet troops out. The consequence — a takeover by the Taliban — was catastrophic. Osama bin Laden cozied up to Taliban leaders, who let al-Qaida use Afghanistan as a staging ground for international terror attacks, including the horrors of 9/11.

There’s no reason that couldn’t happen again. Violent extremists aren’t popular in Afghanistan, but they are ruthless enough to scare populations into submission. The Taliban was bad enough, but the Islamic State is now muscling into the insurgency, employing its signature televised atrocities.

The United States and its NATO allies have already done their part in large combat operations against the guerrillas. That war is over.

After peaking at more than 100,000, the allied force is down to about 17,000. American soldiers now train and advise Afghan troops, provide air support and hunt down terrorists with special operations teams. With insurgents again challenging the Afghan army on a large scale, Afghanistan still needs help. Its government and military are eager to preserve the U.S. presence.

What happened after the U.S. pullout in Iraq is a cautionary tale. Obama might have been able to maintain a residual force — and U.S. influence — in Iraq had he been more eager to secure the necessary agreement with Iraq’s Shiite president, Nouri al-Maliki. It’s not possible to see the end of a road not taken, but more engagement on the president’s part might have kept Iraq from becoming the birthplace of the Islamic State.

America’s chief interest in Afghanistan remains the prevention of a reign of terror and terrorism.

Memories may be growing dim, but the Taliban in 1996 created one of the most depraved governments the world has seen.

Before it was overthrown after 9/11, it presided over massacres, deliberate mass starvation, ethnic cleansing and the enslavement of the female half of the Afghan population. Women were commonly caged in their homes, barred from employment, forbidden from seeing male doctors and sometimes whipped in the streets.

Girls who attempted to go to school were beaten or worse. The man who shot 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan three years ago was a Taliban gunman. The insurgency remains an army of misogynistic fanatics.

The United States has invested too much blood in Afghanistan to wash its hands of the country and perhaps let it fall into the hands of terrorists. The Taliban was a horror show, and Obama is smart not to sell tickets for a rerun.

  Comments