Eight years ago, on the long US campaign trail, the then Senator Barack Obama thought the US presidency was the most powerful position on Earth.
Of all the candidates, he made his every promise sound as though he truly believed they could all be achieved. As his tenure approaches an end, the extra lines on his face suggest he wasn’t able to dispel those beliefs entirely. He depressingly discovered the presidency is the illusion of choice. The mess of Afghanistan and Syria prove the realities of holding an empire are inescapable, even for an ideologue like him.
Mr Obama planned for US combat forces to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016. The “good war,” as he called it, could finally be ended after more than a trillion dollars had been spent and at the cost of thousands of US and allied troops lives, not to mention the unknown number of Afghan casualties.
Keeping a steady path to limit the Taliban’s sporadic guerrilla attacks and coordinating training programmes for the Afghan National Security Force was all he had to do. And to an impressive extent those missions were successful in the ultimate meaning of the word. With New Zealand, ISAF and NATO forces in assistance, much of the country is safe today due to these long-term foreign commitments.
But it wasn’t enough for victory. Mr Obama’s decision to retain 5500 combat troops in theatre after his presidency ends in 2017 was therefore a good, if reluctant, choice. At its height in 2011, foreign troop numbers reached 130,000 throughout Afghanistan and still the commanders struggled to cover all vulnerabilities. The Pentagon asked for at least 9000 troops to remain past 2017, knowing that even this number would be far below the requirement. The decision was made to split the difference and add a few more engagement rules. Because, while Mr Obama clearly doesn’t want any combat forces there, it was ultimately not his decision to make.
In reality, it wasn’t any single person’s decision. Geopolitics doesn’t work like that. If countries are simply groups of people working together within specific constraints, then some bare predictions can be made as to any country’s decision-making processes about what truly matters. What a country can and cannot do is often written like a narrative and laid in front of its leaders. Heads of states may not be happy to read the script but read and follow it they must.
Mr Obama’s Afghanistan decision must be soul-destroying. He believes the US has been too imperial since World War II and must focus more on its domestic problems. If he were a selfish and power-hungry leader, the necessary decisions for survival would be made unhesitatingly. But he is an ideologue, so they are made begrudgingly and, ultimately, inadequately. They are made nonetheless.
Afghanistan has a long way to go toward becoming a viable and functioning nation. The influence of the government in Kabul extends only to its city limits. Without US forces and diplomatic pressure on various tribes, it would be a broken and lawless state in the middle of restive Central Asia.
Al Qaeda and the Taliban are still talking to each other and the Islamic State (IS) is reportedly encroaching around the edges. Russia and China are also interested in occupying a power vacuum should the US depart prematurely. Pakistan is always involved somewhere, too. The recent attack on Kunduz in northern Afghanistan probably took the Taliban months or years to plan. And despite what Mr Obama wishes, the remaining 5500 US forces will certainly be in harm’s way.
The security demands for Syria are equally constraining the US president’s range of possible choices. Mr Obama doesn’t want US battalions manoeuvring across the Iraqi/Syrian deserts. Nor does he want to make a rash move to break the stalemate. But the safety of the US homeland requires him to prevent two neighbouring Arab states from collapsing.
So his decision to cancel the expensive training programme for factions of Syrian rebels appears confusing, unless a wider lens is used. Finding the correct members of democratic and liberal rebels among the hundreds of nationalistic and Islamic rebels has been a nightmare for Pentagon planners.
While the media focus obsessively on the west of Syria, where Russian, Iranian and loyalist troops are conducting fresh offensives against rebels and the IS, the eastern rebels are building on impressive gains in the other direction. Kurdish forces, along with the newly minted Syrian Democratic Forces – a coalition of anti-IS Sunni Arab, Kurdish and Assyrian Christian militias – are pressuring the Islamic State and loyalist positions across the Euphrates river valley and beyond.
US weapons supply drops to those forces have increased over the past week and appear to be in anticipation of a series of upcoming offensives against the IS. That’s important for two reasons.
First, US-supplied anti-tank guided missiles employed by rebel groups across the country severely disrupted Syrian loyalists in the west in the past few months leading to impressive and quick gains in the third quarter of this year. Indeed, this probably forced Russia’s hand to overtly defend its ally Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Second, it also shows the US is still committed to defending rebel forces congruent with its democratic ideals for the whole region. It reinforces the US’ unwillingness to create a power vacuum or let the wrong forces prevail.
The Taliban and al Qaeda both claim they can play the long game better than the US. But Washington officials are the only ones with a nascent empire. If any force can build a presence and wait out an enemy anywhere in the world, it is the US military. And it appears ready to do that.
Mr Obama might not want this to be true but what he wishes and what can happen are often two different things. The casual observer would do well to remember this. The US might hope to be just another nation but it cannot. It has power and with it comes responsibility. It also has a deep strength the international community desperately needs if it is to stay coherent.
That is why Mr Obama decided to stay in Afghanistan beyond his desire and why his Syria programme continues. The responsibilities of empire are bigger than anyone’s ideologies, even those of the most powerful man in the world. That’s a lesson every leader learns eventually.