Obama’s Forever War? The Protracted Occupation of Afghanistan Just Grew Even Longer
The open-ended U.S. war in Afghanistan is poised to grow even longer after President Barack Obama announced on Wednesday that he will further delay the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country, reversing his prior position.
In a statement from the White House, Obama said at least 8,400 U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan after he leaves office in January. This is a significant increase from his most recent vow to close his term with 5,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Currently there are approximately 9,800 U.S. troops deployed in the country.
The development is a lobbying victory for top military brass, which has been pushing for greater troop levels. The White House said Obama made the decision “based on a recommendation from U.S. General Nicholson, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Dunford.”
“The security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious,” said the president, citing the threat of the Taliban. “Even as they improve, Afghan security forces are not as strong as they need to be.” Obama added, “I will not allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again.”
Yet, all accounts suggest that the nearly 15-year occupation of Afghanistan has left the Taliban stronger than ever. A report released by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in January also concluded that the Taliban controls the most territory since the U.S. military invaded in 2001. Then in April, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) concluded that “the first quarter civilian casualty data for 2016 showed continued record numbers of civilian casualties.”
“I believe the military occupation has worsened long-term freedom for Afghanistan because the Taliban feeds off of this military occupation, especially with the number of civilian casualties caused by foreign troops as well the permanent environmental damage to the country,” Laila, cofounder of Afghans United for Justice, told AlterNet. (Laila requested that her last name be withheld due to online privacy concerns.)
Laila added that "foreign military presence in any country is a loss of its sovereignty. I don't feel that Afghanistan is an independent nation currently due to foreign military occupation and invasion. As long as there are foreign military bases, there is no sovereignty or independence.”
The U.S. mission is creeping despite Obama’s claim in December 2014 that the U.S. military’s combat mission in Afghanistan had come to a "responsible conclusion" after 13 years. That same month, NATO symbolically lowered its flag in Afghanistan, with military commanders proclaiming that the mission was coming to a close.
Reality on the ground has been far different from the public proclamations of the Obama administration. In November 2014, President Obama secretly signed an order green-lighting a more expansive military mission in Afghanistan through 2015. Also in 2014, the U.S. and Afghanistan signed the Bilateral Security Agreement, which locks in an American military presence (granted full immunity under Afghan law), as well as the funding and arming of Afghan military forces until 2024. And reporting from New York Times journalists Matthew Rosenberg and Eric Schmitt in 2015 found that U.S. and Afghan forces were working together to ramp up unpopular night raids.
The U.S. military’s October 2015 massacre targeting a Doctors Without Borders facility in Kunduz was roundly condemned internationally, yet did not bring about meaningful consequences for high-level officials or even an independent investigation under the Geneva Conventions. At the same time, the U.S. government has dodged the most basic accountability for its role in the country, omitting Afghanistan from its recently released lowball estimates of U.S. drone killings.
There are signs that violence is worsening by the day, contributing to the highest levels of violent displacement since World War II. A report released in May by Amnesty International found that the number of Afghans internally displaced as a direct result of conflict has more than doubled in the past three years, reaching 1.2 million people, compared to 500,000 in 2013.
Meanwhile, Obama faces opposition from the right for his troop pledge, with Sen. John McCain releasing a statement that declares it is “difficult to discern any strategic rationale for withdrawing 1,400 US troops by the end of the year.”
Peter Lems, program director for education and advocacy on Iraq and Afghanistan for the American Friends Service Committee, told AlterNet, “The American people have grown exhausted by the weight of endless war. The emotional impact of continuous fighting and messages of fear have led many of us to become numb to the human cost of these wars.”
“Drone strikes, special kill teams and arming militias to the teeth have expanded the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq to include the entire region. Leaving U.S. forces in Afghanistan does not address the crisis,” Lems continued. “Removing U.S. weapons, troops and support for militia forces can begin to turn the tide.”