In every country where the West has intervened over the years, the result has been a patchwork solution. But it would be an oversimplification to say: just get out!
One would think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had destroyed all hope once attached to Western military interventions, insofar as this hope ever existed. Barack Obama long ago stopped deluding himself about that hope. Nevertheless, the U.S. president decided last week that America's soldiers wouldn't be withdrawing from Afghanistan at the end of 2016 as planned.
By the end of his presidency, all soldiers, save for a small remainder, were supposed to be back home. This was Obama's promise. But now, when the presidency changes hands in January 2017, 5,500 soldiers will still be stationed in the Hindu Kush. Whether they are still needed will be for Obama's successor to decide.
At the moment, it looks very likely that the soldiers will be needed. The Taliban are once again on the advance. Today, they control a larger area than they did at the beginning of the NATO mission in 2001. The conquest of Kunduz three weeks ago showed the situation’s precariousness. Although the Taliban were well outnumbered by government forces, the Taliban were able to drive the government forces out of the city without any trouble.
"We understand that Afghanistan still needs assistance," said U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. For a while, its military has been resisting a full scale retreat. But does Afghanistan really believe the situation can still change for the better after 14 years of war? Or is its resistance simply a means by which to postpone the ignominious end?
The Islamic State Is Gaining Power
The determination and combat capabilities of the government troops appear to be in a poor state. In Afghanistan, we are now seeing a repeat of what happened in Iraq, where in May 2015 the city of Ramadi fell because 10,000 soldiers were incapable of defending against 600 Islamic State fighters. Now, just like then, the government troops, trained and equipped by the United States, are facing highly motivated Islamist extremists who are convinced time is on their side.
Of course, Obama knows all of this. The fact the Islamic State group is also gaining influence in Afghanistan would have played more than a small role in his decision to keep U.S. troops on the ground. The Islamic State group is reaching further and further outside of its central region of Syria and Northern Iraq. More brutal than al-Qaida, they have left a trail of blood through Afghanistan, leading toward Bangladesh.
This is not the only reason for Washington's rethink. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen suggested the German Federal Armed Forces will likely extend their stay in Afghanistan as well. A withdrawal would only be justifiable when the security situation allows for it. "Exactly when that will be, nobody can say yet."
The German Federal Armed Forces are facing another possible deployment in the near future. In Berlin, they are debating whether to considerably expand the German forces’ participation in the United Nations mission in Mali, according to reports in the Suddeutsche Zeitung last Thursday. So far, the German Federal Armed Forces are only present in the south of the country, where they are taking part in a European Union training mission. Now they will support the Dutch, who are stationed in the more dangerous north of the country.
Mali appeared on the Islamists' radar when neighboring Libya began falling into anarchy after the death of Moammar Gadhafi. There, too, the West intervened, for respectable reasons but with wholly insufficient means and, above all, without the slightest strategical vision or political perspective.
If You Break It, You Own It
In every country where the West has intervened over the years, the result has been a patchwork solution. But it would be an oversimplification to say: just get out and get out as fast as possible. Anyone who intervenes militarily assumes responsibility for the consequences. As the former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said: "If you break it, you own it."
Simply leaving scorched earth behind isn't an alternative, politically or morally. As everybody knows, the situation could yet get worse, as shown by the barbarism of the Islamic State group along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
Even before he moved into the White House, Obama said that after a decade of war it was "time to turn the page." Now, after nearly seven years as commander in chief, he has revised his decision to withdraw. Even he was unable to start a new chapter. That is a tragedy.