“The tide of war is receding,” Barack Obama tirelessly insisted four years ago as he campaigned for re-election. Even then, the slogan seemed untethered from reality. Not only was fighting in Afghanistan intensifying, with no end in sight, but Syria, Iraq and Libya were all sliding toward civil war.
That Obama stayed with the phrase reflected not just his electoral strategy but an enduring feature of his foreign policy. Having arrived in office with a handful of ideologically driven goals, the president has stubbornly stuck to them regardless of contradictory facts on the ground.
“Ending the wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan was foremost among those objectives. Obama forced the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq in order to finish in time for his 2012 campaign, and until a few months ago, he appeared implacably committed to completing an Afghanistan withdrawal before leaving office.
One of the most important questions of Obama’s remaining months consequently is whether — and to what extent — he can let go of his wished-for legacy. Can he accept that it is a vital U.S. interest not just to preserve a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and the Middle East, but to step it up to confront growing threats from the Islamic State, Taliban and al-Qaida?
Can he acknowledge that the “tide of war” is not receding, but — like it or not — swelling? In October, the president scrapped his plan to reduce the 9,800-strong U.S. force in Afghanistan to an embassy-based contingent of maybe 1,000 by next January, and last month he gave U.S. commanders permission to attack Islamic State targets as well as al-Qaida.
However, he has not yet altered his target of reducing U.S. forces to 5,500 by the end of the year. Nor has he responded to proposals to provide regular combat air support to Afghan forces against the Taliban to stop what have been steady and cumulatively alarming gains by the insurgents.
As both the incoming and outgoing U.S. commanders have publicly hinted, Obama will soon be asked, at a minimum, to stop the troop drawdown to prevent an Afghan military collapse. In Iraq, Obama has allowed the U.S. troop level to creep back up to 3,700 since 2013, counting special forces deployed in Syria.
But as The New York Times recently reported, Pentagon officials believe many hundreds more will need to be dispatched in the coming months if Iraqi and Kurdish forces are to have a chance to retake Mosul, the largest terrorist-controlled city. That includes trainers, but also commandos and other front-line personnel — in other words, combat forces. There, too, Obama has not yet made a decision.
Last, but perhaps not least, Obama faces a choice in Libya, where his national security team believes action is urgently needed to head off an Islamic State entity taking root there. “It’s fair to say we’re looking to take decisive military action,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said last month. But Secretary of State John Kerry said at a conference on Libya last week: “That’s not in his horizon at the moment.”
How will Obama manage these three decisions? Seven years of evidence suggests he will water down his commanders’ proposals and approve only incremental steps. The problem — especially for Obama’s successor — is that decisive action cannot easily be postponed for another year. That’s particularly true in Afghanistan, as was underlined in a conversation I had last week with Saad Mohseni, operator of the country’s most popular private television channel, Tolo TV.
Tolo suffered a devastating blow last month when a Taliban suicide bomber slammed into a company bus in Kabul, killing seven and injuring 25. But this assault on one of the country’s greatest achievements since 2001 — free media — was just part of a grim landscape sketched by Mohseni: a government paralyzed by infighting, a stalled economy, and a poorly led and demoralized army that is barely preventing a Taliban takeover of several major provinces. “We are in a pretty bad situation,” he said. “It is one that could be easily salvaged, but that would require quick action — and it’s your president’s last year.”
Mohseni’s recommendations echo the generals: Deploy U.S. air power against the Taliban and call off the troop drawdown. “The United States has huge leverage,” he said. “You can still turn the situation around.”
The question is whether a president who dreamed of ending the wars can be persuaded to do it.
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Post.