Obama Needs to Explain Why We’re Breaking Up with Afghanistan

President Barack Obama boards Air Force One at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, as he departs for Washington, D.C.,  last year.

White House Photo/Pete Souza

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President Barack Obama boards Air Force One at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, as he departs for Washington, D.C., last year.

President Obama has switched from a message of 'we have to win' to 'we have to exit,' with little conversation in between. By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

President Barack Obama “came into office, with two active wars and tens and tens of thousands of American troops in harm’s way in Afghanistan and Iraq, with a pledge to end the war in Iraq and to wind down the war in Afghanistan,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said this week.

Only Obama didn’t enter office in 2008 pledging to wind down Afghanistan.  At that time, what the would-be president promised was to “make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be.” In fact, Obama called the Afghanistan the “wild frontier of our globalized world” and noted that the “security of Afghanistan and the United States is shared.” Candidate Obama also pledged “an additional $1 billion in non-military assistance each year” to “heed Marshall’s lesson, and help Afghans grow their economy from the bottom up.”

What is underway now from the White House is the rebranding of the Afghan war from the war “we have to win” to the war we have to exit, with little conversation in between. It is almost as if policy makers fear the public will be reminded of its longest-ever war simply by discussing it. Or hope Americans will forget it if they don’t — an objective made easier by the fact that less than one percent of the country is doing the nation’s fighting.

The Hill, too, has shown little relish for speaking at length and in-depth on the war still underway. At Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing last February Iran received 135 mentions. Afghanistan, 27.

Now the “zero option” — the idea that no American troops would stay behind come 2014 – has replaced “Afghan good enough” as the latest in a string of downsized policy goals quietly issued by the Obama administration. When it comes to Afghanistan, short-term tactics have substituted for long-term strategy in the face of a vision gap when it comes to America’s presence post-2014.   

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said Monday during a visit to Kabul that he was never asked to evaluate the zero option. And many have called the idea a diplomatic pose designed for negotiating leverage.  But if U.S. goals have shrunk in Afghanistan it’s imperative that the public — and especially America’s fighting men and women – know why.  The war is not over; American infantrymen continue to die on the battlefield.  Undoubtedly the United States has had a difficult relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, but Karzai is not Afghanistan, and if the US has a strategic imperative to pursue in Afghanistan then surely it goes well beyond a president who presumably will be out of office next year.  

Or as former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann put it recently, “We, the United States, are now coming up to certain very critical decisions that will be made fairly soon, both about our presence in Afghanistan after 2014 and about the next year, what we will do in terms of troop levels, as well as perhaps some other pieces of policy. This debate has been completely ignored in the electoral period, and it is being framed all too much in bumper sticker phrases, which simply are idiotic ways of trying to understand the complexity of Afghanistan.”  

Throughout the 2012 campaign an articulate Obama administration stayed mum on America’s concrete commitments to Afghanistan. Afghanistan was mentioned most often in the campaign applause line, “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.” Indeed, Vice President Joe Biden lampooned opponent Paul Ryan for daring to argue what the Pentagon’s spokesman had said a year earlier: that conditions on the ground should determine the pace of the 2014 troop drawdown.

My friend and the governor say it’s based on conditions, which means ‘it depends,’” Biden said of the Afghan war’s 2014 deadline. ”It does not depend for us. It is the responsibility of the Afghans to take care of their own security.”

All of this to-and-fro comes as force structure has been a central issue in discussions over the bilateral security agreement, or BSA, now being hashed out between the United States and Afghanistan. Talks on the BSA broke off last month, a casualty of Afghan anger at the symbols involved in the opening of the Taliban office in Doha, but officials familiar with the discussions say that an agreement is within sight.  

Big questions remain: Who would the U.S. consider an adversary under the agreement and would the U.S. attack Taliban safe havens in Pakistan post-2014? And would the Taliban still be America’s enemy? Afghan leaders say “yes” while the U.S. has defined its post-2014 mission as 1) assisting and supporting Afghan forces; and 2) rooting out al-Qaeda. As the Washington Post noted, “under that job description, the Taliban — should it choose to continue fighting — will be Afghanistan’s enemy, not America’s.” Or as Biden noted already in 2011, “the Taliban per se is not our enemy.” 

All of this has created confusion on the ground among Afghans. Like America’s brave fighting men and women and in even greater numbers, they continue until today to see their lives, families and livelihoods destroyed by Taliban explosives.  

Women, too, have moved from center stage to the policy sidelines when it comes to the Afghan war. Women’s advancement has long been heralded as one of the most visible signs of the past decade’s progress. Close to three million girls are now in school, a quarter of parliament is female, thousands of midwives save women’s lives across the country each day and maternal mortality has been halved.   

But while everyone talked about women’s rights on the way into Afghanistan, few want to discuss them on the way out. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised Afghan women that “we will not abandon you,” but women can’t be found in America’s two remaining objectives in Afghanistan.  

America badly wants a deal in Afghanistan and a transition that will extricate it from an unpopular and expensive war, with minimal damage to our reputation and Afghanistan’s future prospects. That may be possible, or it may prove elusive. Either way the country needs an honest discussion about America’s plan not just for 2014’s end, but for 2015’s beginning. America cannot tiptoe out after more than two thousand dead, hundreds of billions of dollars spent and a slew of bold pronouncements pledging its long-term commitment. And it is too late to rebrand its longest-ever war. There is no walking away quietly — no breaking up on a Post-it note.  A full-throated and fully heated debate in the public eye is needed. The stakes are indeed that high, even if few in Washington want to say so.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

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