When President Barack Obama leaves office in 15 months, he’ll hand his successor military conflicts in the two countries where he promised to end prolonged war: Afghanistan and Iraq.
There will be far fewer troops in each, and the American forces won’t have a direct combat role. But for Obama, it’s nevertheless a frustrating end to a quest that was central to his political rise.
“As you are all well aware, I do not support the idea of endless war,” Obama said Thursday as he announced he was dropping plans to withdraw nearly all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year. Instead, he’ll leave office with at least 5,500 on the ground to help protect gains made during 14 years of war.
As a result, the winner of the 2016 presidential election will become the third American commander in chief to oversee the Afghan war.
Obama’s goal of ending the wars he inherited had already been tarnished by the return of U.S. forces to Iraq last year, 2½ years after they left. The troops are there to help Iraq fight the Islamic State, a mission Obama has said will likely outlast his presidency.
Obama never mentioned Iraq Thursday, but the tenuous situation there has no doubt hung over his decision-making on Afghanistan. Obama’s critics contend the decision to withdraw from Iraq created the vacuum that allowed the Islamic State to thrive and warned that leaving Afghanistan next year could have the same consequences.
Military commanders have argued for months that Afghans needed additional assistance and support from the U.S. to beat back a resurgent Taliban and keep the Islamic State from using the country as a haven.
The president had originally planned to withdraw all but a small embassy-based force from Afghanistan in late 2016, shortly before leaving office. Under the new $15 billion-a-year plan, the U.S. will maintain its current force of 9,800 through most of 2016, then begin drawing down to 5,500 late in the year or in early 2017.
Obama’s decision thrusts the war into the middle of a presidential campaign that so far has barely touched on Afghanistan. Candidates now will be pressed to say how they will try to do what Obama could not — end a conflict that has killed more than 2,230 American service members and cost more than $1 trillion.
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