President Obama’s announcement yesterday that he will pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan at the end of 2016 is a bad omen not only for stability in Afghanistan but also for foreign policy objectives the president may have as his administration comes to a close.
Obama said 9,800 troops will remain in Afghanistan next year. That number will be cut in half at the end of 2015. All troops, except for a small force at the embassy, will be gone by the end of 2016.
I believe there is no question that Obama’s announcement is all about his legacy. He wants to say after he leaves office that he fulfilled his campaign promises to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and withdraw all U.S. troops. The president probably chose the number of 9,800 troops so he can tell his anti-war supporters that fewer than 10,000 troops will remain in the country after this year.
Americans are justifiably weary of the war in Afghanistan and want all U.S. troops to come home now. However, the growing sectarian violence in Iraq is an indication of what will happen if we pull out of Afghanistan precipitously. 4,000 have been killed in Iraq this year. Al-Qaeda has made a comeback and has used its presence in Iraq to expand into Syria.
Obama diplomats went through the motions of trying to get a status of forces agreement with Baghdad to leave a small number of U.S. troops behind to train Iraqi troops and engage in counterterrorism missions after the bulk of U.S. forces withdrew.
No agreement was reached because the White House was more interested in being able to say the president withdrew all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. If some U.S. troops had remained, they could have promoted stability by discouraging the Iraqi army from its crackdowns against Sunnis and advising Iraqi forces on how to better target al-Qaeda fighters.
Afghanistan faces more serious challenges than Iraq did in 2011. The capabilities of Afghan security forces are still uncertain. The Taliban is biding its time until international forces pull out. They now know the date when the United States will withdraw.
Republican Sens. John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, and Lindsey Graham expressed their concern about this when they said in a joint statement on May 27: “All wars end. The question is how they end. The war in Iraq has ended in tragedy. And it is difficult to see how we can succeed in Afghanistan when the president tells our enemies that our troops will leave by a date certain whether they have achieved our goals or not.”
I am worried that Obama’s Afghanistan troop announcement could be the first of other ill-advised foreign policy announcements and agreements over the next two years.
My biggest worry is Iran. So far the United States has led multilateral talks with Iran during which Tehran has agreed to easily-reversible steps on its nuclear program that have done nothing to reduce the threat of a potential Iranian nuclear bomb. Tehran has also been adamant that it will not dismantle any nuclear facilities or reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium.
On the other hand, over the last two years the U.S. and its allies have repeatedly retreated from their prior positions on the Iranian nuclear program, including that Iran end all uranium enrichment.
Western states reportedly are now considering the preposterous idea of letting Iran complete and operate its Arak heavy water reactor — a source of plutonium — if this reactor’s plutonium production can be reduced.
Iran has been building the Arak reactor in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Allowing Iran to have any source of any plutonium is deeply troubling because only one-third as much plutonium versus enriched uranium is needed by weight to fuel a nuclear weapon, an important consideration in designing nuclear warheads. If Iran is planning to build nuclear tipped missiles, its preference is to arm them with plutonium-fueled nuclear warheads.
The U.S. and its European allies have set a July 20 deadline for a “grand bargain” on Iran’s nuclear program. With both sides currently far apart, strong congressional opposition, including from Robert Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the upcoming congressional elections, I doubt anything will be agreed to by that date and the talks will be dragged out for at least another year.
Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has tried to address growing congressional concerns about the Iran talks by submitting an amendment requiring a Senate vote on any deal with Iran on its nuclear program. Top Senate Democrats, at the behest of the White House, took steps this month to prevent Corker’s amendment from coming to a vote.
With failed U.S. policies concerning Ukraine, Syria, Iran, Israel/Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other nations and regions piling up, Obama officials are desperately looking for some big wins and achievements to close out the Obama years.
The president claimed in his West Point speech on May 28 that “for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement” on the Iranian nuclear program.
After this fall’s elections, Obama could step up his administration’s efforts to score a last minute foreign policy “big win” in the form of a supposed breakthrough agreement with Iran that does nothing to roll back its pursuit of nuclear weapons and contributes to more insecurity in the Middle East.
There is little Congress can do to stop the president from withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But members of Congress and potential 2016 presidential candidates can help stem the damage from a disastrous deal with Iran and other dubious last minute international agreements negotiated by the Obama administration by stating that they will not be bound by them and will revisit any international deal that is not vetted with the U.S. Senate.
This may prevent Obama officials from striking foolhardy international agreements between now and Jan. 20, 2017, by convincing key U.S. allies to withhold their support because new U.S. leaders are likely to back out of them in 2017.
President Obama will be in office 20 more months. Given his arbitrary and political decision on U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the disturbing trajectory of the Iran nuclear talks, our elected officials and 2016 presidential candidates must do whatever they can to limit the damage from Obama’s inept foreign policy in the time he has left.
Fred Fleitz served for 25 years with the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee staff. He is currently chief analyst with LIGNET.com, Newsmax Media’s global intelligence and forecasting service. Read more reports from Fred Fleitz — Click Here Now.
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