Milbank: Obama's journey from hope to reality

Dana Milbank
On Twitter @Milbank
Dana Milbank

WASHINGTON – Behold the reluctant warrior.

Five years and two weeks ago, President Obama addressed the nation about the end of the war in Afghanistan. There would be no more Americans in combat in Afghanistan in 2014, he said, vowing to match what he'd already accomplished in Iraq.

"Tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding," he said. "We've ended our combat mission in Iraq, with 100,000 American troops already out of that country. And even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance. These long wars will come to a responsible end."

Some time later, he said the United States would have no more than a normal embassy presence in Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

But on Wednesday, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner announced that the war would go on — into the term of his successor and with an 8,400-troop force that will be more than 50 percent larger than he had set in his last announcement that he was slowing the pullout from Afghanistan.

"The security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious," Obama, in charcoal gray, said from the Roosevelt Room, his defense secretary and his top uniformed officer at his side. He allowed that "Afghan security forces are still not as strong as they need to be" and that "the Taliban remains a threat."

The 15-year war, already well longer than the Soviets' 10-year adventure there, goes on.

"Today's decision best positions my successor to make future decisions about our presence in Afghanistan," Obama said.

For Obama, it was another acknowledgment that, as he put it in 2014, "it's harder to end wars than it is to begin them."

He pulled American troops out of Iraq, but a power vacuum and Islamic State violence there has caused the military presence to creep back up, to nearly 5,000.

Since Obama surged troops into Afghanistan and then pulled them out faster than his generals wanted, he has had to keep a larger presence there than he had planned as the Taliban has rebounded.

He successfully decapitated al-Qaeda, only to see the terrorist hydra spread in the form of the Islamic State and other groups, making the world seem more chaotic and dangerous. The terrorism prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which Obama pledged to close, remains open.

U.S. forces have been involved in bombing campaigns in Libya, Syria and elsewhere, and Obama has exponentially increased the use of targeted killings in places such as Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The administration recently announced that such strikes have killed about 2,500 members of terrorists groups and between 64 and 116 civilians, though human rights advocates say the civilian figures are dramatically understated.

Certainly, there are far fewer U.S. troops in harm's way than there were at the start of the Obama presidency, but to revisit his speeches over the years is to see his journey from hope to hard reality.

In mid-2011, despite concerns in the military, he began what he said would be a "steady" Afghanistan withdrawal. "Let us responsibly end these wars and reclaim the American Dream that is at the center of our story," he said.

A few months later, he triumphantly announced that the last troops would leave Iraq, and he was still ebullient in May 2012: "My fellow Americans, we've traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon."

Two years ago, Obama announced that "this is the year we will conclude our combat mission in Afghanistan," declaring that by the end of 2016 the military would have but "a normal embassy presence."

But by October 2015, Obama reported that "Afghan forces are still not as strong as they need to be," while "the Taliban has made gains." He said he would drop the military presence only to 5,500 troops by the end of 2016. That's the number Obama increased Wednesday.

"When we first sent our forces into Afghanistan, ... few Americans imagined we'd be there in any capacity this long," he said Wednesday. Still, "we have to deal with the realities of the world as it is." He spoke of the need for troops and funds to "keep strengthening Afghan forces through the end of this decade."

It was a sensible, perhaps inevitable decision. But it felt a long way from Oslo.

Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.