With two stubborn wars,
conflict and chaos remain
Barack Obama has reduced U.S. military fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan over nearly eight years in office.
But for every American soldier he brought home, opposition forces grew stronger, and instability worsened.
The United States is stuck on a wartime treadmill. Though Obama has slowed us down from a sprint to a jog, he has not fulfilled promises to bring the wars to a full stop.
These two promises, particularly Iraq, were significant components of his platforms in 2008 and again in 2012, fueling endorsements and support from voters who were turned off by his opponents’ initial support for the 2003 invasion.
“Let me be clear: there is no military solution in Iraq, and there never was,” he said at a September 2007 campaign rally in Iowa. “The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq's leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops. Not in six months or one year — now.”
“When we end this war,” Obama continued, the country could focus on advancing energy policy, universal health care, fighting global poverty and completing the mission in Afghanistan — where Obama saw a more legitimate battleground against terrorists and the Sept. 11 perpetrators.
In his 2012 race for re-election, his campaign declared: "President Obama responsibly ended the war in Iraq and will end the war in Afghanistan in 2014."
As Obama’s presidency comes to a close, the United States is still entangled in the chaos of both countries.
“Iraq is significantly worse than when he took office, and Afghanistan is little better than it was when he took office,” said Stephen Biddle, who advised President George W. Bush’s administration in Iraq and the Obama administration in Afghanistan. “We’ve neither ended the U.S. involvement nor secured our interest in either of these theaters.”
PolitiFact has tracked Obama’s effort to end the era of war in Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly eight years. Along the way, he has withdrawn and deployed troops, ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden, won re-election, clashed with foreign leaders, diverged from his advisers, vastly expanded drone strikes, disappointed both anti-war activists and war hawks and witnessed the rise of a global terrorist threat in a country where he once claimed victory.
To most ears, Obama’s 2008 Iraq promise and 2012 Afghanistan promise to “end” the wars gave the impression that the United States would fully withdraw from both countries under his leadership, in a sign of their stability.
Among Obama and his advisers, however, there was never a sense that the United States would end its military relationship with either country, or that either country would be completely peaceful, said Derek Chollet, who served as the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Obama administration from 2012-15. Instead, they were focused on enacting practical policy because they believed the missions Obama inherited were unsustainable.
“In retrospect, some of the language of ending war, the tide of war receding, statements along those lines, did present a more black-or-white picture than actually exists or anyone intended,” added Chollet, now executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund.
Evaluating the promises as Obama plainly said them — pledging in 2008 to “end the war in Iraq” and in 2012 to “end the war in Afghanistan” — it is clear he was unable to fulfill those goals.
Iraq: a retreat, then a return
When Obama entered office in 2009, he immediately put the wheels in motion to ratchet back U.S. involvement in Iraq, where about 150,000 troops were deployed.
Iraq at that time had a veneer of calm. Violence was down, and divides among Shia and Sunni Muslims appeared to be on the mend. Experts largely credited the 2007 “surge” of more than 20,000 U.S. troops under Bush for keeping the peace.
Obama inherited an agreement to remove American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, which the Bush administration had signed with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in late 2008. Obama and his advisers didn’t necessarily want to pull all troops out of Iraq by that deadline; they expected to pronounce the war over while leaving some forces behind for peacekeeping and training Iraqi soldiers.
Obama tried to renegotiate the agreement. The two sides bickered over details such as legal immunity for U.S. soldiers, a condition Obama wanted to go through Iraqi parliament. Maliki wouldn’t agree, and the negotiations failed.
Obama ultimately adhered to the deadline set out in Bush’s agreement, and the last convoy of U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011. Obama cast the moment as a success.
“The end of war in Iraq reflects a larger transition,” Obama said in an October 2011 statement. “The tide of war is receding. The drawdown in Iraq allowed us to refocus our fight against al-Qaida and achieve major victories against its leadership — including Osama bin Laden.”
But just a couple of years later, it became abundantly clear that all was not well in Iraq. Maliki started to show signs of authoritarianism, suppressing Sunni voices in the government. Radical Islamic fighters affiliated with al-Qaida, calling themselves the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), gained ground by capitalizing on a lack of effective government leadership in Iraq and its neighbor, Syria. And the Iraqi military started to crumble, putting up little resistance as ISIS easily captured territory, notably the city of Mosul in 2014.
In 2014, Obama launched a new military operation in Iraq and Syria specifically to take out the terrorist group, with the United States acting as the main driver of drone strikes in a 60-member coalition.
The 2011 troop withdrawal is not the sole reason ISIS was able to thrive amid so much unrest. It is reasonable, though, to consider that had Obama been able to leave a significant American presence in Iraq, or had he intervened in Syria’s conflict early on, ISIS would not have been able to strengthen so rapidly.
“When the U.S. left Iraq, the message we sent to everybody in Iraq is that we don’t care about the outcome anymore,” said Kori Schake, who served as director for defense strategy and requirements on the National Security Council under Bush. “ISIS realized, ‘We’re not going to have to fight the United States.’ ”
Afghanistan: the never-ending extraction
In the 2011 speech where Obama announced the forthcoming full withdrawal of troops in Iraq, he said this would allow the United States to pivot to ending the war in Afghanistan.
“Now, even as we remove our last troops from Iraq, we’re beginning to bring our troops home from Afghanistan, where we’ve begun a transition to Afghan security and leadership,” he said.
That was the plan. The reality in Afghanistan was similar to Iraq, where removing U.S. forces did not end fighting, and by some measures made it worse.
In his first 18 months in office, Obama increased the number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan from about 30,000 to 100,000 with the goal of dismantling al-Qaida and the Taliban, making communities resistant to insurgencies and training Afghan forces. But he put a timeline on the surge, saying troop drawdown would begin in July 2011 and end in 2014.
In June 2013, the United States and NATO handed over security responsibilities to the Afghan forces. In December 2014, Obama declared the combat mission complete.
Taliban insurgencies have exposed the Afghan government’s security weaknesses, wreaking havoc throughout the country. In 2015, the Taliban took control over more territory than it held at the start of the war in 2001, according to the United Nations.
Obama had hoped to withdraw all troops by the end of his presidency, but an estimated 8,400 will stay after he leaves office. Even though the soldiers there now are formally no longer in a combat role, they are doing far more than just training and assisting Afghan forces, as Obama said. They’re conducting counterterrorism missions and engaging in special operations to assist Afghan soldiers, and the U.S military continues to deploy targeted airstrikes.
Obama and his supporters argue that he responded to the reality on the ground in Afghanistan by deciding to leave more troops there after the security situation deteriorated. But critics see the initial decision to withdraw troops and the decision to set a deadline for completion as mistakes that greatly contributed to the current chaos in Afghanistan.
Setting a deadline for ending the war encouraged the Taliban to lie in wait, knowing the United States would be gone in the near future, at which point the insurgent group could recover ground, Biddle said. Obama’s surge didn’t last long enough to solidify the gains it made.
“What the president did was provide a troop count which might have been sufficient if there had been no deadline,” Biddle said. “The result is that when it came to hand the job off to the Afghans, the job was too much for them to handle.”
Where we are now
At the end of his presidency, Obama will be able to say he ended the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that he inherited in 2009: Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
He leaves behind, however, two new military operations: Operation Inherent Resolve, launched to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan.
There are fewer U.S. soldiers on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan than when Obama entered office, and largely through the use of drone strikes, he has been successful at taking out high-level terrorist leaders like bin Laden.
“The current military engagement in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan are making a difference and are sustainable over time, in terms of what the American people can accept and what our military can support,” Chollet said. “In both places there’s been progress made and huge challenges left.”
Despite Obama’s declarations in 2011 and 2014, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan never actually ended. U.S. troops stopped fighting in large-scale on-the-ground combat operations, but there is a still a military presence in two unstable countries. After U.S. troops left, Iraq experienced a brief period of quiet before spiraling into turmoil. As soon as Obama started to withdraw soldiers from Afghanistan, the Afghan government showed it was unable to handle the Taliban on its own.
Reasonable minds can disagree over how much blame Obama deserves for the current state of affairs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Any president would have had to deal with the political upheavals in both countries that were, to some extent, unpredictable, said Anthony Cordesman, a consultant of the State Department and the Defense Department under Bush and Obama. Obama should get some credit for adapting to conditions as they changed while trying to use a minimal force and relying as much as possible on allies and diplomacy.
“This is a president who has adapted to the emerging reality of each country, to a war that did not go as well as he wanted in Afghanistan and a political civil situation there that certainly did not make the progress many hope for,” Cordesman said. “He adapted to the fact that he has faced a different war not just in Iraq but in Syria.”
The American people are rightly concerned about disorder in the Middle East, Obama said in a recent interview with Vox, explaining his desire to have a limited presence there. To a certain extent, though, these countries have to solve their own problems instead of relying on the United States.
“This is going to be a generational challenge in the Muslim world and the Middle East that not only the United States but everybody's going to have to deal with,” he said. “And we're going to have to have some humility in recognizing that we don't have the option of simply invading every country where disorder breaks out. And that to some degree, the people of these countries are going to have to, you know, find their own way. And we can help them, but we can't do it for them.”
History books will determine the ultimate effect of Obama’s foreign policy. It is clear, though, that the two wars Obama promised he would end will still be going when a new president takes the Oval Office in January. It will be up to him to take the United States off the treadmill of war, if the goal is even possible.