The U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan had been a major point of discussion in the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections. The majority of the candidates have expressed their opinion on this topic. It is not surprising that it continues to be a heated debate even after President Obama announced his decision to withdraw. This decision has also been met with some criticism by the Republican candidate, who believes that this decision will lead to a return of terrorism in Afghanistan. The other presidential candidates, namely Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, are more accepting of the president’s decision and do not believe that it will increase terrorist activity or instability within Afghanistan and the Durand Line region.
Summary of president Obama’s afghanistan announcement:
The president first addressed his thoughts on Afghanistan in a speech at West Point in December 2009. In this address, he asserted that it was time for America to begin drawing down troops from Afghanistan and fixated on a 12 percent troop reduction by summer 2010. Later, President Obama also announced that more than 20,000 troops would be withdrawn from the country by August 2011 (CBS News). The drawdown process continued after President Obama stepped into office due to several factors, including withdrawal of NATO forces, increased influence of private contractors, and an increase in counter-insurgency operations against Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, which were supported by drones (Betts & Daley, 2010).
The President’s Afghanistan withdrawal plan:
In his address to the nation on the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, President Obama pledged that by 2012 he would begin a drawdown of troops from Afghanistan. This withdrawal was meant to be gradual, with an initial 10% reduction in January 2012 and the beginning of complete troop withdrawal by 2014(Lovelady, 2017 ). In July 2011, President Obama announced that over 30,000 additional troops would be withdrawn over summer 2011 and that 21,000 soldiers will remain till next fall (Wolffe & Lovelady). In May 2013, the president rolled out another policy change stating that 34 000 soldiers would withdraw by the end of December 2014 compared to 18-20 000 over the same period in 2012(Wolffe & Lovelady).
The president’s justification for withdrawal:
President Obama has often been questioned on why he didn’t announce a specific date for troop withdrawal during his original speech at West Point. He argued that this was due to uncertainty regarding an agreement with Afghanistan and Pakistan. After both countries agreed to give U.S. troops access to land supply lines and permit them to operate from their bases, President Obama announced a certain timeframe, which is now being executed (Betts & Daley, 2010).
The decision of when and how many troops to withdraw from Afghanistan has confused within the ranks of American forces who are unsure if they would remain longer or be called back sooner. President Obama was also concerned about the effect withdrawal would have on his credibility and popularity, especially in the face of criticism by Republicans who accused him of being soft on terrorist groups (Betts & Daley).
Several reasons were proposed for President Obama’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. One major concern that has been raised is concerning U.S. national interests in Afghanistan. Critics argue that there are no longer any vital American security interests after 11 years of war(Johnson, 2010). This argument is supported by a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report, which stated there was no clear evidence that U.S. involvement prevented al-Qaeda from using Afghan territory as a base for future attacks against America (Weldon, 2010).
Furthermore, it has also been argued that the Taliban is not an existential threat to America, and the gains made in Afghanistan have been exaggerated. This argument is based on the rise of insurgency following the U.S withdrawal from Iraq after 8 years of war (Johnson, 2010). The main reason for this argument is that insurgent groups like the Haqqani network and Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin are unlikely to capture Kabul or overthrow the Karzai government(Weldon).
On the other hand, many Afghan civilians view their security situation as worse than before due to increased incidents involving gunfire, bombs, and assassinations (Joint Chiefs Staff & Riedel Center for Humanitarian Dialogue). The increased violence results in civilian support for the Taliban, who protect terrorist groups since the government cannot provide security. The overall question in this debate then becomes, what are America’s vital interests in Afghanistan? Are they any, and if so, how many troops do we need to maintain them (Weldon)?
This argument was also reinforced by a poll conducted by CNN, which showed that more than half of Americans believed that U.S involvement was no longer worth the costs and casualties(Wolffe & Lovelady). It is thus clear that backing out of Afghanistan is an important part of President Obama’s foreign policy agenda especially considering the withdrawal from Iraq and ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a rallying cause for terrorists again (Johnson, 2010).
Another reason often cited for the withdrawal is to fulfill a campaign pledge made by President Obama when he ran for president during the 2008 presidential election. The promise was that he would bring all U.S troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan; when it became clear that this wasn’t being implemented, Obama proposed scaling back American involvement in the Afghan war, which included plans to begin withdrawing at the end of 2011 (Betts & Daley).
This reasoning behind the decision has been challenged since his campaign slogan articulated an illusion that America could withdraw its forces without negative consequences(Johnson). It ignores political and military realities on the ground and therefore places service members at risk who are expected to continue fighting after their comrades have left(Weldon). This is especially true regarding Afghanistan, where even small reductions in U.S troops strength result in an increased incidence of Taliban and other terrorist groups activity (Johnson).
The following are some quotes from a speech Obama gave about Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in world, has been at war for 30 years. It is a nation at the center of a region at war. The Taliban harbor terrorism — a threat to Afghan people, American service members and our partners who serve alongside them.”
“We live in extraordinary times–our military is powerful; our economy is growing; our country is turning the page on eight years of economic and military mismanagement. Our standing in the world has never been stronger.”
“These circumstances demand that we make clear-eyed judgments about what matters most and shape our decisions accordingly.”
“And while it may be tempting to offer a quick exit — and an easy exit is very tempting — that would mean more attacks, and ultimately make the situation worse.”
“We want to bring our troops home as soon as we can, consistent with the word that we’ve given them. But I don’t have a timeline in mind for doing so at this point. So what we need to do is to be very clear-eyed about what’s involved here.”
“I will commit new resources to training security forces in Afghanistan. We will send additional U.S. trainers who are specialists in counterinsurgency work. And I am going to ask for more American advisors on the ground, because even successful training programs require advisors.”
“We live in a time of extraordinary change. We live in a time when people are looking for the nation’s leadership and not just its military might. Our challenge is to provide them both — moral as well as material leadership.”
“If you sign up for our military, you defend our flag. If you’re a diplomat, you represent our country.”
“And if we lose sight of this fundamental truth about America, we risk losing everything that’s made us who we are.”
“It’s time to act like Americans again and stand up for our own interests around the world. It will be hard, but it must be done.”