An Afghan local police officer in Kunduz.

Photographer: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Obama's Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Afghanistan

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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World events in the last few years have a habit of making President Obama look foolish.

Take the president's speech Monday before the U.N. General Assembly. There, Obama spoke solemnly about the limits of U.S. unilateral military power and the importance of international cooperation. Half a world away in Afghanistan, the Taliban took the major city of Kunduz.

Kunduz fell this week, and remains contested, because of the absence of unilateral U.S. military power. In Obama's second term, he decided on a military strategy to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the time he left office. With conventional forces leaving, the U.S. special operations forces left places like Kunduz to the Afghan local police. 

QuickTake Leaving Afghanistan

The U.S. trained and fought alongside these local police to harness the strength of local fighters to stabilize rural villages and provinces. The program expanded in 2010 when Gen. Stanley McChrystal focused his strategy on earning the trust of the local population.

But without the U.S. special operations forces on the ground, the Afghan local police became bandits. In theory, they were supposed to be under the authority of the national police and the ministry of interior. The reality didn't work out that way. The International Crisis Group reported in June that the local police, more often than not, contributed to instability and were often outside the reach of the government in Kabul.

Mark Schneider, a senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, told me that his organization saw the fall of Kunduz coming. "In Kunduz the Afghan local police have not been effective. As a result you have a tendency to see others fill in," he said, pointing to a series of offensives from the Taliban in the province that began in the spring. 

The military also saw this coming. Mark Moyar, who as a senior fellow at the Joint Special Operations University conducted a study of the Afghan local police, told me the special operations command in Afghanistan in 2013 did not want to leave Kunduz, "but they were required to draw down their forces because of the larger draw down."

It's important to note here that Obama has political ownership of the Afghanistan war, in a way he shirked such responsibility for the war in Iraq. Yes, his predecessor began both wars. But Obama ordered a surge of troops to Afghanistan in 2009 and initially approved an ambitious counterinsurgency strategy there. Eventually he got cold feet and fired McChrystal out of pique over some background comments attributed to his advisers in Rolling Stone.

These days senior White House officials talk about Afghanistan and Iraq as if the primary policy goal was simply to get U.S. troops out of there. Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said Wednesday at the Aspen Washington Ideas Festival that America can't spend its resources “trying to fix fundamentally broken societies."

In fairness to Rhodes, there is much about Afghanistan society that is fundamentally broken. As the New York Times reported last month, U.S. servicemen in some cases were told to look the other way as Afghan police commanders sexually abused young boys on a U.S. base in what is known as "bacha bazi," or boy play.

In the late 2000s, the Taliban was able to take and hold significant territory because the governors were so corrupt and cruel that the locals aligned with Afghans' former oppressors rather than the Afghans the U.S. had hoped would be their liberators.

Add to this the staggering cost of rebuilding Afghanistan. As John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan, said last month, the U.S. has committed $110 billion to rebuild the country since 2002. In many cases that money was wasted on power plants that don't work, schools that fall apart, anti-narcotics programs that haven't stopped the flow of heroin from Afghanistan to Europe, and training and equipment for an army and a police force that are impossibly corrupt.

None of this is new. Sopko and his predecessor have been documenting corruption and waste in Afghanistan for years. And U.S. military officers have been aware of bacha bazi among our Afghan allies since they started training them.

Despite the costs and unseemly alliances, Obama and President George W. Bush didn't just pull out of Afghanistan. It was unacceptable for the country to fall to an unrepentant Taliban.

Democrats and Republicans agreed that Afghanistan cannot be allowed to become a safe haven for terrorists again. Today that consensus has eroded. Why should Afghanistan be any different from Libya or the Islamic State's territory in Iraq and Syria? Those places are already safe havens for terrorists who share the same aspirations as al Qaeda leaders who plotted 9/11 from Afghanistan.  

Obama would say that it is in the world's interest to share the burden of stabilizing these lawless places. As he said Monday at the U.N.: "No matter how powerful our military, how strong our economy, we understand the United States cannot solve the world's problems alone. In Iraq, the United States learned the hard lesson that even hundreds of thousands of brave, effective troops, trillions of dollars from our Treasury, cannot by itself impose stability on a foreign land."

But America's exit from Afghanistan has not spurred other nations to fill the void. That task has been left to the Taliban, making Obama's solemn pronouncements a prophecy, self fulfilled. Afghanistan is at risk of falling into the abyss today because the president withdrew our military too soon, not because that military was incapable of bringing stability to Afghanistan.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net