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Opinion: The White House is Handing the Afghanistan War to Next Administration


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John UbaldiBy John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security

The war in Afghanistan has been raging since 2001, but it seems the president has lost focus and is now just preparing to hand off the conflict to the next administration.

This lack of focus by the president has its origins in the early days of his presidency, even though President Obama campaigned on ending the Iraq war and shifting U.S. troops to Afghanistan, he always wanted to end both conflicts.

In the first few months of his administration, President Obama increased and sent 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. In December 2009, he addressed the nation at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point stating, “As Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.”

As the president was surging forces into Afghanistan he was also preparing for their withdrawal, but the president never seemed to articulate a comprehensive strategy for the region.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in both the Bush and Obama administration, wrote in his book “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” that “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission.”

In a recent article in “The Atlantic,” author Jeffrey Goldberg wrote the president believed, the Pentagon had “jammed” him on a troop surge for Afghanistan. The president just never believed this would work and once he announced his surge of forces he rarely if ever spoke about it or explained it on a regular basis why the U.S. was continuing its involvement in Afghanistan.

One only has to look at the Department of Defense website to see the focus that the administration has on Afghanistan (or the lack thereof), as one of the “Top Issues” Afghanistan is not even mentioned.

Afghanistan: ‘Forgotten War’

Military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote a report titled “Afghanistan: Shift to a “Conditions-based” Strategy or lose the “Forgotten War,” It only gets passing attention on the White House’s website—to the point where the “defense” section still refers to the President as having, developed a comprehensive new strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan and authorized deployment of more than 33,000 “surge” troops to Afghanistan”—a statement that dates back to March 27, 2009. Another White House Fact Sheet dates back to May 27, 2004 and is entitled “Bringing the U.S. War in Afghanistan to a Responsible End.”

The administration which labeled Afghanistan as “the good war” only wants to extricate the U.S. from the country, but unfortunately the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq and its eventual denigration forced the president to alter his Afghan troop draw down.

Unfortunately, the administration has not shaped any coherent U.S. presence that will enable Afghan forces the ability to hold, win and expand territory once held by the Taliban.

Last week, while speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Secretary of Defense mentioned, “After more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, we have to make sure our gains there stick, which is why the budget continues to support our two missions in Afghanistan –countering terrorism, and training, advising, and assisting the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). In support of those two missions, the President announced last fall that the United States will maintain a continued presence of 9,800 troops through most of 2016, before drawing down to 5,500 troops by January 2017.

The remaining question, what strategy is the president leaving the next administration?

In deference to President Obama, the two top leading candidates to succeed President Obama, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, have rarely mentioned Afghanistan, or for that matter, the region.

Whoever the country elects as president will inherit a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and if left unchecked, will affect the region. One only has to remember the last time the U.S. left Afghanistan, after Russian forces pulled out in February of 1989. Afterward the U.S. abandoned the country until the Taliban took power.

Those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it.