News analysis

Iraq lesson looms over US' Afghan decision

A US soldier standing guard at an army base in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province on Aug 12. Mr Obama drew an implicit distinction between Iraq and Afghanistan by stressing the new Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, unlike Iraq's in 2011, sti
A US soldier standing guard at an army base in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province on Aug 12. Mr Obama drew an implicit distinction between Iraq and Afghanistan by stressing the new Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, unlike Iraq's in 2011, still supported a US military presence and has taken the legal steps to make it possible. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE

Obama reverses troops plan after 2011 US pullout led to Iraq chaos

WASHINGTON • As he described the factors that went into his decision to keep United States troops in Afghanistan on Thursday, the one word US President Barack Obama did not mention was Iraq.

Four years ago, he stuck to his plan to pull out of Iraq, only to watch the country collapse back into sectarian strife and a renewed war with Islamist extremists.

Facing a similar situation in Afghanistan, Mr Obama has decided not to follow a similar course.

Whether keeping a residual US force in Iraq would have made a difference is a point of contention, but he chose not to take a chance this time. In seeking to avoid a repeat of the Iraq meltdown by keeping 9,800 troops next year in Afghanistan and 5,500 after he leaves office, he abandoned hopes of ending the wars he inherited.

While not openly drawing any lessons from the Iraq withdrawal, Mr Obama drew an implicit distinction by emphasising the new Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, unlike Iraq's government in 2011, still supported a US military presence and has taken the legal steps to make it possible.

"In the Afghan government, we have a serious partner who wants our help," Mr Obama said in his televised statement from the White House. "And the majority of the Afghan people share our goals. We have a bilateral security agreement to guide our cooperation."

Ms Lisa Monaco, his homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, later addressed the comparison during a conference call with reporters. "The differences are clear from 2011," she said. "The Afghan government has asked us to stay, has invited us in, wants to work with us and wants to have an enduring partnership."

White House press secretary Josh Earnest added: "In 2011, we didn't have that effective cooperation from the Iraqi central government."

Mr Obama's plan to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan by the time he left office always struck national security experts in both parties as untenable, and most assumed he would reverse himself. A bipartisan group of former officials released a report this week urging him to keep troops there.

Mr Stephen J. Hadley, a national security adviser to former president George W. Bush, said on Thursday Mr Obama presumably wanted to "avoid giving the Republicans another issue" after the Iraq setbacks. "Republicans have made a big point of saying the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011 is a contributing factor to the chaos in Iraq... he didn't want to saddle Hillary Clinton with having to defend a similar decision to pull out in Afghanistan," he said.

The White House rejected such interpretations. "I can tell you that politics played absolutely no role in the President's decision-making here," Mr Earnest said.

Security analysts said the new plan may be just enough to preserve the status quo. "(It) may prevent the country from deteriorating as quickly as Iraq did," said Mr Seth Jones, an Afghanistan specialist at the RAND Corp. "But it's unclear whether it will be enough to turn the Afghan ship around."

Anti-war activists, however, expressed disappointment that Mr Obama went back on his word. "This is disastrous," said Ms Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. "The notion - that the lesson of Iraq is keeping a military occupation permanently in place is somehow the answer - is absolutely the wrong lesson."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2015, with the headline 'News analysis Iraq lesson looms over US' Afghan decision'. Print Edition | Subscribe