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Forestalling the inevitable: why Obama is extending our never-ending Afghanistan war

US troops in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.
US troops in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.
John Moore/Getty

Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s — it's difficult to pinpoint an exact moment — the nation we had known as Afghanistan collapsed into civil war and chaos. And since September 2001, the United States has viewed that chaos as too dangerous to ignore.

That is, in its most fundamental terms, why the US has been at war in Afghanistan for now 14 years. And it's why President Obama, after coming into office in 2009 pledging to end the war, will announce today that he is not withdrawing after all. The next president will come into office overseeing the longest war in US history.

But what he or she will inherit isn't really a war in the traditional sense, but rather a mission — small but Sisyphean — that everyone knows is doomed: to temporarily stave off Afghanistan's inevitable collapse, a few months at a time. The war is already lost, and has been for years.

Obama's new Afghanistan plan: a one-year delay, not a game changer

The change to US war plans is symbolically fraught, as Obama will now leave office with the US still engaged in Afghanistan, but the shift in military terms is less dramatic.

Obama's previous withdrawal plan, announced in May 2014, was for the US to draw down to 9,800 troops at the end of that year. Then, at the end of 2015, he would draw down to 5,500 troops. Finally, at the end of 2016, he would draw down to a small force guarding the US Embassy in Kabul.

His new plan basically just delays everything by one year. Those 9,800 troops will stay an extra year, through the end of 2016. The force will draw down to 5,500 at the end of 2017. But rather than drawing down to an embassy-only force at the end of 2018, Obama will leave that decision to the next president, who'll take office in January 2017.

So the change, while meaningful, is not enormous.

Why the US is delaying its Afghanistan exit

These troops are not going to be defeating the Taliban or returning Afghanistan to stability. To put those troops numbers in context, the US force peaked at about 100,000 troops. And the US needs 1,000 of its troops just to guard the embassy compound in Kabul. So 9,800 or 5,500 are not game changers. This is a small force that cannot turn the tide of the war.

Tellingly, they are to be located only at four locations: Kabul (the capital), the airbase at Bagram, and bases just outside two regional capitals: Jalalabad and Kandahar. These bases are primarily used for counterterrorism operations and drone strikes.

The Taliban has been resurgent in Afghanistan, including recently by briefly overrunning the town of Kunduz, its biggest victory in 14 years. US-brokered attempts at peace talks have failed. It seems inevitable that Afghanistan will collapse back into war. With a small ISIS force growing in the country, there are fears that chaos in Afghanistan could yet again become a shelter for global terrorism.

The force is too small to change these overarching trends. Rather, it will serve two purposes: keep the Taliban from winning those three major cities (Kabul, Jalalabad, Kandahar), thus staving off Afghanistan's total collapse; and also maintain bases for strikes and special forces raids against terrorist targets.

As analyst Doug Ollivant told the New York Times, the policy question here is, "Are we willing to spend — the numbers are fuzzy — but somewhere between $10 and $20 billion per year in perpetuity for the privilege of Afghanistan not totally collapsing?"

Afghanistan is already lost, and everybody knows it

There is nothing about this small force that is designed to change Afghanistan's slide into chaos — it's only to forestall it, and to allow the US to continue targeting terrorists while we're at it.

The US conceded Afghanistan back in 2014, when peace talks fizzled out, the US-trained Afghan forces repeatedly proved themselves incapable, and the White House decided to go ahead with withdrawal plans anyway. A decade-plus of war and a 140,000-strong occupation force had not fixed Afghanistan's problems. The hope was that the NATO occupation could impose order long enough for Afghan leaders to find a peaceful political solution to the war, or at least for Afghan security forces to get good enough to stand on their own. Neither happened.

Those hopes are now dead in Washington — though they linger in Kabul, because what other choice do those people have? — and you should not mistake this force as about maintaining the initial war's aims of stabilizing the country and defeating the Taliban. This is a small residual force meant to forestall total disaster for another couple of years and take out a few high-value terrorists in the meantime. But that disaster is almost certainly inevitably at this point; Afghanistan will collapse. And that's been coming for a long time.

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