President Obama has announced a new timeline for the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan. The big news is that the US, which currently has 33,500 troops in the country, will leave 9,800 through the first months of 2015, but those troops won't be around long. By the end of 2016 the only American military presence left will be a contingent guarding the US embassy in Kabul.
So what does this mean for the war in Afghanistan? The good news is that the Obama administration is sticking to its pledge of leaving Afghanistan, which it's been carrying out by gradually withdrawing troops since 2012. The Americans' war is ending.
The bad news is that the administration is tacitly confirming what everybody already knew: the war against the Taliban is not one that the US believes it can win, so we're going to stop trying. That war, Afghanistan's war, is going to continue.
This is not necessarily welcome news for Afghans. One of the main issues in this year's Afghan presidential election was whether or not the country should sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, which allows the US to keep troops in the country. Hamid Karzai opposed the BSA; the two candidates who came out on top in the election both vocally supported it. Many Afghans I've met, whatever their politics, are outspoken about wanting the Americans to stay, not because they are blind to the invasion force's mistakes or missteps but because they see it as the security bulwark against something much worse: the Taliban.
So while this may be good news for Americans, who are understandably sick and tired of a war that has cost them so much and yielded so little, do not mistake it as therefore good news for Afghans.
The Obama administration is announcing its withdrawal schedule without having struck a peace deal with the Taliban, the Afghanistan-based insurgent group that briefly ruled the country, sheltered al-Qaeda during the 2001 attacks, and has been the chief military antagonist in the war. The US made a big push to strike a peace deal with the Taliban first, in the hopes that the uncertain withdrawal timetable would give the US leverage for a deal.
But the talks fell apart and the US is withdrawing anyway. So the Taliban will keep fighting, 15 years and 2000 American lives after the US invaded to push them out. In a press call previewing the announcement, a senior White House official said that the US was focused on the threat from al-Qaeda and that the Taliban was for the Afghan government to deal with. That was not always US policy, which for some time asserted that the Taliban gave al-Qaeda safe haven (true) and thus that defeating the Taliban was necessary to curb the al-Qaeda threat (debatable).
The Obama administration hoped it could separate out the Taliban from al-Qaeda, the latter of which it has gotten pretty good at fighting, by getting the Taliban to renounce the group and promise not to shelter it. The US never got that pledge — the Taliban seems to have decided, rightly, that it could wait us out — so it is making the decision to separate them out on its own.
The Obama administration is not giving up entirely on the Taliban. The whole point of leaving those 9,800 troops, rather than entirely withdrawing this year as some in the administration had wanted to do, is to train and aid Afghanistan's military, who mostly exist to fight the Taliban.
The Afghan military has been problematic from the beginning: it runs on US funding and is plagued with desertions. Another year of US help is not likely to turn them into a victory force. President Obama's declaration that this will help the Afghan military "stand on its own" is just not very likely.
But this delayed troop presence may be enough to at least prop up the Afghan central government through the coming presidential transition, in which President Hamid Karzai will leave office after 13 years in power. That's something. What happens after that, though, is Afghanistan's problem. "We have to recognize that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America's responsibility to make it one," Obama said.
So this announcement is, in many ways, about the US giving up on fighting the Taliban. Maybe that's a good thing — Americans certainly seem to think it's not our fight anymore, lots of Americans have already died in an effort that has yielded precious little, and the Obama administration sees al-Qaeda as a much larger priority — and maybe it's a bad thing. But it's the way that the American war in Afghanistan is ending.