"This year, we will bring America's longest war to a responsible end." So says Obama in a Rose Garden announcement, after conferring with his military leaders in Afghanistan.
We will leave some 9800 troops in country by the end of the year. Obama was able to say this with some degree of confidence because the two remaining contenders in the next presidential election there on 14 June, the always-a-bridesmaid former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, have both pledged to support the bilateral agreement worked out with the Afghan government, but which Karzai has refused to sign, leaving that to his successor (so he says).
One of the first items that struck me (and which remains unreported) is the enormous problem of logistics and security rearrangements that will have to be overcome in order to ship over 22,000 troops and their gear back stateside from that landlocked country, while leaving the remainder in a secure position, all taking place within the timeframe of only six to seven months, in what is still a combat theater.
Obama went on to say that by the end of the following year, the 9800 figure would be halved to just under 5000, and by the end of 2016 the drawdown will be complete, leaving a "normal embassy staffing" that would include about 1000 troops. (I have travelled widely in my time and was familiar with several US embassies. I am unaware that a normal embassy security staff would involve the equivalent of a reinforced battalion of Marines. But then the guy who makes the rules, or defines the terms, always wins the game.)
Thus the plan is to have the Afghan equivalent of 'everyone' out by what coincides (we are supposed to believe it is sheer happenstance) with the end of Obama's regime. Thus, whatever success accrues thereafter (extremely doubtful, but then rest assured that the press will characterize it that way) will be gain to the historians and hagiographers of Obama. If it craters, they can blame his successor.
The 9800 figure (and dropping) is to allow for trainers and advisory staff, and doesn't address the question that the number of those remaining would be primarily focused on trying to defend themselves in the middle of a large, sufficiently hostile country. Considering that a typical combat ratio would have only around 2000 of them in combat arms, the predicament becomes more exquisite.
One has to also pre-suppose, as Obama would have us, to believe that the enemy will cooperate in our withdrawal, that Obama's simple declaration that "the war is over" (speaking of 'victory' is oh-so-twentieth century) suffices to make it so. But the enemy always has a seat in our councils of war, and particularly so in our peace delegations, because it only takes one side to make – and sustain – a war, not two, and I have to wonder at the assumed patience, never before displayed, for the enemy to resist the temptation to drive home their point by attacking the remnants of our troops as they depart. That, after all, is an Afghan tradition.
But the only remnants that Obama spoke of referred to the "remnants of al Qaeda", never blushing at the fact that al Qaeda is as strong, and certainly more widespread, than before. Sure, he has nailed some of the old time guard, Osama bin Laden among them as he constantly reminds us, but others remain, and younger fanatics have stepped up to fill in the gaps. This ridiculous attempt to parse "core al Qaeda" from the "al Qaeda affiliates" is a distinction without a difference, as if the terrorists in AQIM, AQAP, al Shabaab, ISIS, Boko Haram, Lashkar e Taiba, Abu Sayyaf and many other franchises are no less intent on killing us than did their predecessors, merely because we exist outside their culture. Al Qaeda, as we must remember (yes, we really need to), means "the network", and it is still very much so.
And what of the resurgent Taliban just ticking away the time, residing in the dark enclaves of the outlaw territory of Pakistan just across the border, with a barely tottering democracy in a nuclear power? And Iran to the west? What influence will have in that savage territory henceforth? That's not Obama's problem.
Senator George Aiken was attributed to have said, in reference to the Viet Nam War, that we should simply "declare victory and come home", leaving the Vietnamese to fight it out amongst themselves. Obama falls heir to the quip that repetition is the sincerest form of flattery, but in this case he would have us declare victory but stick around for a while.