Obama’s unsettled legacy on Iraq and Afghanistan

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This article is part of a series on Barack Obama’s presidency, nine years after he announced his White House bid on Feb. 10, 2007. To read the rest of the series click here.

Be careful how you leave.

That’s the advice Ryan Crocker, President Obama’s ambassador to Afghanistan in 2011–12, offers as the White House seeks to pull the curtains on Obama’s two terms by removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

It was principally Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War that rallied many voters in 2008, but others, especially liberal Democrats, also hoped he would end the war in

But with less than a year left in the White House, Obama and the United States have not fully disentangled from either conflict — and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has emerged as a new threat.

Some who served the president at the highest levels don’t think history will render a favorable verdict on his handling of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I think it’s going to be a pretty bleak legacy — not all of it by any means the responsibility of the administration, but there is a lot of responsibility there,” Crocker told The Hill in an interview last month.

Defenders of Obama’s legacy argue that the deck was stacked against his administration.

“I think we got to realize, too, this president inherited more problems than any president in the United States post-World War II, and I think maybe in a hundred years,” said Chuck Hagel, a former Defense secretary who at times tangled with Obama.  

“Franklin Roosevelt had problems, but his were contained in the United States. This president inherited two wars, the largest global financial disaster since the Great Depression,” Hagel told The Hill.

Finishing the job

Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq in December 2011, the same year in which he ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

After promising in 2008 to “finish the job against al Qaeda” in Afghanistan, he declared an end to combat in that country in 2014 as al Qaeda’s leadership suffered devastating attacks.

But the picture got cloudier from there.

The rise of ISIS led to the re-introduction of U.S. troops to Iraq, which now number about 3,700. The terrorist group has been able to carry out attacks in Europe while inspiring an attack in the United States.

In Afghanistan, plans to reduce the U.S. presence to a skeleton force defending the American embassy in Kabul have been postponed. Since the president declared the combat mission over, there have been at least 14 American troops killed in combat.

Obama’s decision to withdraw troops from Iraq has received significant criticism, especially in retrospect.

“He decided to pull everybody out once the surge had won at great sacrifice and squandered all the gains there, which then gave birth to ISIS,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of Obama’s fiercest critics, told The Hill.

The administration maintains that the presence of U.S. troops would not have changed the dynamic in Iraq that led to the rise of ISIS.

“It was the failure of [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] and Iraq’s various political factions to govern in the spirit of national unity that led to an escalation of sectarian tensions,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told The Hill.

“Our troops alone would not have filled that vacuum, and in fact, might have gotten caught in the middle of the vacuum,” he said.

Advisers also say Obama was hamstrung on Iraq by a 2008 agreement negotiated by the Bush administration to pull out all troops. Attempts to prod the Iraqi parliament toward negotiating a new agreement were also doomed to failure, they say.

Obama “was ambivalent but he did try to keep troops on,” said Jim Jeffrey, the president’s ambassador to Iraq at the time.

“He could have tried harder, but he would have run up against [one] underlying thing. … People don’t really want American ground troops.”


Yet, for many who were part of hard-fought gains in Iraq, ISIS’s rise in Iraq is a bitter pill. 

Crocker, who also served as former President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Iraq, says it was not military withdrawal per se that caused the situation to deteriorate in Iraq but rather a falling-off in political focus.

“It was our political disengagement, and we are politically disengaged throughout the Middle East,” he said. “We can’t fix everything, but when we are engaged intelligently, things work better or at least don’t go as badly wrong.”

Some say Obama’s decision to order about 68,000 more troops to Afghanistan during his first year while simultaneously setting the start date for their withdrawal encouraged the Taliban to simply wait U.S. forces out.

Matthew Spence, who served as a senior official at the National Security Council and Pentagon from 2009 to 2015, argues that setting a drawdown date in Afghanistan was important to get the government to take necessary steps to secure its own country.

Defenders of the administration say the rise of ISIS took everyone by

But a former senior government official who wished to speak on background said the pressure wasn’t kept up on al Qaeda in Iraq — ISIS’s precursor. 

That, the former official said, is partially due to the administration’s preference for a light-footprint counterterrorism approach to wars that relies heavily on special operations and drone strikes. 

“Yet of course, it’s never enough. You just can’t strike your way out of these problems unless you want to strike forever,” the official said.

Jeffrey does gives the president credit for pushing out al-Maliki, who was widely seen as ineffective and

But he also argues Obama should have acted much sooner against ISIS. 

“After they took Fallujah [in 2014], he did nothing of significance, other than they had a lot of meetings,” Jeffrey said.


Three of Obama’s former Defense secretaries have spoken of a tendency toward micromanagement that they feel has hurt Obama’s efforts.

Former Pentagon chief Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush years, was galled to find a direct phone line from a White House staffer to a special operations command center in Afghanistan. He ordered that it be ripped out.

“Had I called a four-star commander as an NSC staffer … I’d have been fired instantly,” he said during a recent appearance at the Council of Foreign Relations, in response to a question from The Hill.

“So this micromanagement is a problem. … You have to choose your subordinates carefully, but then you have to empower them, hold them accountable, and if they don’t do the job, get rid of them. But above all, you can’t micromanage them,” he added.

Hagel, who served as Defense secretary for two years from February 2013, made a very similar observation.

“Governing is not dominating, it’s just the opposite. … Because, like any institution, you need good people, and you need to trust good people,” he said recently at the Atlantic Council. “If you don’t think they’re good people, if you don’t trust them, you shouldn’t have asked them to come in to start with.”

Rhodes said the president isn’t a micromanager, but does set parameters, such as calling on troops to be kept out of a combat role in Iraq.

“If there’s going to be a change, whether it’s a decision to locate U.S. forces to train and equip at a different facility in Iraq, or whether there’s a more forward deployed role envisioned by the commander … that will come back to him, but not what the troops are doing on a day-to-day, or week-to-week basis,” he said.

Some former advisers say that’s the problem.

“This is Barack Obama. This isn’t some Kissinger-esque character whispering in his ear,” said Jeffrey, the former ambassador to Iraq. “They’re not just ideas, they’re convictions. He’s thought this through in great detail.”

Jeffrey and other critics say their disagreement with the president is philosophical — they believe in projecting military strength, and he doesn’t.

Retired Gen. David Petraeus, who served as top commander in Afghanistan and CIA director under Obama, said there are three lessons he’s learned from the Arab Spring.

“First, that ungoverned spaces in the Middle East and Central Asia will likely be exploited by Islamic extremists; second, that in dealing with such situations, U.S. leadership is not only invaluable, it is indispensable — though we obviously want as many partners with us as possible; and third, that we need to lead a comprehensive approach, not just a narrow [counterterrorism] approach — though that does not axiomatically mean that the U.S. has to provide the ground combat forces or perform a number of the other tasks that comprise a comprehensive approach,” he told The Hill.

Rhodes argues that elements of Washington don’t understand that the U.S. military cannot impose stability in the Middle East.

“We just draw different lessons from the last decade than a lot of critics,” he said. “Ultimately the only sustainable path for these countries is for there to be political accommodations among different communities and
local security forces with the capability and the will to secure those communities.”

Crocker says neither Bush nor Obama got it right in the Middle East.

“I have a little mantra about the two things I learned in years in the Middle East: One of them is be careful what you get into. The other is be careful what you propose to get out of,” he said.

“The Bush administration failed on the first count — they were not careful of what they got into. And the Obama administration failed on the second count — not being careful of what they wanted to get out of.”

He says he’s no longer sure what to tell the families of those killed in

“What they all wanted to hear was the sacrifice of their son or daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife, that it meant something. That it counted for something,” he said.

“I used to be able to say that. I can’t say it anymore. … It’s a tough thing.”

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