President Barack Obama’s credibility, stretched thin by the broken promise of Obamacare, may soon face another difficult test: explaining how his promise to end the war in Afghanistan squares with leaving thousands of U.S. and NATO troops there.
Obama hammered away at Republican rival Mitt Romney on the issue last year, saying the former Massachusetts governor had no timetable for bringing Americans home from the country’s longest war.
“We are bringing our troops home from Afghanistan. And I've set a timetable. We will have them all out of there by 2014,” Obama said in Boulder, Colo., in September 2012. “Gov. Romney doesn't have a timetable. I think he's wrong. That's what's at stake in this election.”
“All out of there?” Even at the time, White House aides envisioned leaving behind a residual force —
troops assigned the twin missions of training local Afghan security forces and targeting extremists. That briefly flickered in January 2013 when the White House let it be known that it was considering the “zero option” of pulling everyone out. But officials have said in recent months that the administration hopes to keep several thousand troops in Afghanistan.
The latest news out of Afghanistan suggests that Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai have closed in on a long-term security pact that envisions 10,000-16,000 U.S. and NATO troops staying in the country after the withdrawal of combat forces technically concludes at the end of 2014.
So how can Obama reconcile his promise with his plan?
“The war in Afghanistan will end next year, as the president has promised. The combat mission will be over,” White House press secretary Jay Carney insisted Tuesday.
“If an agreement is reached and it is approved, we would certainly look at what limited troop presence might be required to fulfill that mission, counterterrorism and training and equipping of Afghan troops,” he added, but “that is not the war that we've been engaged in now for more than a decade.”
“You will not see U.S. troops patrolling mountains or cities, in that circumstance, if an agreement is reached,” the spokesman said.
Much will depend on whether Afghanistan’s loya jirga (an assembly of tribal leaders) and its parliament will grant the United States' request that American troops not be subject to prosecution by Afghan courts. That’s a controversial issue in Afghanistan, but Obama has left no doubt that absent such immunity he can’t sign off on a deal, and Americans as well as their NATO partners will leave.
And what about Afghanistan? Back in December 2008, when then-President George W. Bush undertook a farewell tour of Iraq and Afghanistan, a reporter asked Karzai whether he wanted to see a scheduled withdrawal of American forces.
“Afghanistan will not allow the international community to leave it before we are fully on our feet, before we are strong enough to defend our country, before we are powerful enough to have a good economy — and before we have taken from President Bush and the next administration billions and billions of more dollars no way that they can let you go,” the Afghan leader said, to laughter.