Obama's Retreat From War Made Matters Worse

Staff Sgt. Keith Fidler kisses his wife Cynthia, as their son Kolin looks on, during a homecoming ceremony in New York, April 8, 2011 for the New York Army National Guard's 442nd Military Police Company's return from Iraq. The author asks, Did it ever occur to Obama that his efforts to “end” Bush’s wars are precisely what ended up extending them? Shannon Stapleton/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

The New York Times reported the news last Sunday:

On May 6, with eight months left before he vacates the White House, Mr. Obama passed a somber, little-noticed milestone: He has now been at war longer than Mr. Bush, or any other American president.

If the United States remains in combat in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria until the end of Mr. Obama's term—a near-certainty given the president's recent announcement that he will send 250 additional Special Operations forces to Syria—he will leave behind an improbable legacy as the only president in American history to serve two complete terms with the nation at war.

The story points out that Obama came to office seven years ago promising to end George W. Bush's wars. But, the paper reports:

Mr. Obama has found those conflicts maddeningly hard to end. On Oct. 21, 2011, he announced that the last combat soldier would leave Iraq by the end of that year, drawing that eight-year war to a close. "Our troops will definitely be home for the holidays," Mr. Obama said at the White House.

Less than three years later, he told a national television audience that he would send 475 military advisers back to Iraq to help in the battle against the Islamic State, the brutal terrorist group that swept into the security vacuum left by the absent Americans. By last month, more than 5,000 American troops were in Iraq.

Ditto Afghanistan, which, the Times says:

In May 2014, Mr. Obama announced that the United States would withdraw the last combat soldier from the country by the end of 2016….

Seventeen months later, Mr. Obama halted the withdrawal, telling Americans that he planned to leave more than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan until early 2017, the end of his presidency. By then, the Taliban controlled more territory in the country than at any time since 2001.

Did it ever occur to the Times—or Obama, for that matter—that the president's efforts to "end" Bush's wars are precisely what ended up extending them?

When Obama took office he inherited a pacified Iraq, where the terrorists had been defeated both militarily and ideologically. Militarily, thanks to Bush's surge, coupled with the Sunni Awakening, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI, now ISIS) was driven from the strongholds it had established in Anbar and other Iraqi provinces. It controlled no major territory, and its top leader—Abu Musab al-Zarqa—had been killed by U.S. Special Operations forces.

Ideologically, the terrorists had suffered a popular rejection. Iraq was supposed to be a place where Al-Qaeda rallied the Sunni masses to drive America out, but instead, the Sunnis joined with Americans to drive Al-Qaeda out—a massive ideological defeat.

Obama took that inheritance and squandered it—withdrawing all U.S. forces from Iraq; taking our boot off of the terrorists' necks; allowing them to regroup and establish a safe haven in Syria; and then when they prepared their offensive back into Iraq, doing nothing while dismissing them as the "JV squad."

As Gen. Jack Keane pointed out on Fox News on May 16, in Iraq, "Bush won the war. Obama lost the peace."

In Afghanistan, it was a similar story. President Obama gave his military commanders 25 percent fewer troops than they requested, and then he pulled them out after just a year—starting the withdrawal in the middle of the spring and summer fighting season, when our commanders on the ground needed them most, so he could end the surge before the 2012 election.

As a result of these decisions, U.S. forces were able to pacify the south, but were withdrawn before they could do the same in the east. Then, to make matters worse, Obama arbitrarily declared an end to U.S. combat operations and set in motion a plan for the complete drawdown of U.S. forces.

But the Taliban did not end its combat operations. To the contrary, while America withdrew, they made dramatic gains.

Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda returned to the safe haven from which they planned the 9/11 attacks. Recently, The Washington Post reported, "American airstrikes targeted what was probably the largest Al-Qaeda training camp found in the 14-year Afghan war."

When Obama took office, there were no major al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. Now they are back. And—bringing the whole sad spectacle full circle—ISIS has expanded from Iraq and Syria and established a presence in Afghanistan, taking over villages and imposing rule so brutal it is actually making Afghans long for the days of Taliban rule.

This is what Obama's own policies have wrought. Because he was more focused on retreat than victory, he has achieved neither. As recently as on May 27, 2014—even after the folly of his Iraq withdrawal had become evident to all—Obama was still insisting that he would withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan before leaving office.

"It's time to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq," he declared in the Rose Garden, adding "Americans have learned that it's harder to end wars than it is to begin them. Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century."

But the page did not turn. The war did not end. And thanks to his actions, the story grew tragic.

So when Barack Obama bemoans the fact that he will be the only president in American history to serve two complete terms with the nation at war, he has no one to blame but himself.

Marc Thiessen is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.