Neither in Iraq nor Afghanistan did the debate concern prolonging the U.S. combat mission. The question rather was whether to station a modest number of troops 10,000 to 15,000 was the range mentioned by generals once that mission ended. Their job would be to train and support local forces and, crucially, to maintain some U.S. influence to continue nudging democracies in their political infancy toward compromise, human rights and civilian control of the military.
Mid-level White House officials tried to push for such things in Baghdad even after the troop withdrawal. But they found themselves with little sway, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, without U.S. reassurance, unsurprisingly fell back on supporters in Iran and within Shiite militias. Progress that had been made in cooperation among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds was reversed; U.S.-trained professionals were booted from the defense and interior ministries in favor of sectarian loyalists.
"People have said, 'Doesn't this show that you should never take the troops out of Afghanistan?' " a White House official said this week, according to The New York Times. Obama's response, according to this official: "He said, 'No, it actually points to the imperative of having political accommodation. There's a limit to what we can achieve absent a political process.' "
That's true. But what is the best way to promote political accommodation? Since Obama announced he would pull all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of his second term, it's not surprising that Afghan factions have begun looking for ways to hedge their bets and ensure their survival if order begins to break down.
What's the best way to avoid a collapse? Is it to offer support to those who take a chance at compromise? Or is it to wag a finger, lecture and walk away? Iraq over the past three years provided an answer. But Obama seems determined to run the experiment again.