Earlier this month, in yet another installment of the United States’ decapitation strategy of targeted killings of high-ranking members of terrorist organizations, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan. Soon after the strike, the Taliban declared Mansour’s deputy, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada as his successor. Upon his accession, Akhundzada denounced any prospect of peace talks with the Afghan government.
This raised doubts over the United States’ strategy of coercing the Taliban to the negotiating table. The United States has attempted to do so through targeted killings of their senior leadership to extirpate its organizational cohesion, and thereby dampen their resistance to negotiations. Akundzada’s appointment and denunciation were swift, probably to prevent another instance of organizational in-fighting, as witnessed last July over the revelation of the death of Mullah Muhammad Omar – the Taliban’s former leader and founder.
However, in retrospect, the news of Mullah Omar’s death didn’t quite deter the Taliban. The Taliban’s subsequent gains on the ground have been its strongest in a decade. According to a 2016 report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “In 2015, the conflict in Afghanistan continued to cause extreme harm to the civilian population, with the highest number of total civilian casualties recorded by UNAMA since 2009.” Therefore, even this time around, It is highly unlikely that the death of a senior Taliban leader will end the violence.
As Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution puts it, decapitation by means of drone strikes to disrupt the group’s leadership is “a tempting military tool, but seen through the political lens on which any negotiations and reconciliation will ultimately depend, it can be too blunt an instrument.” Thus, although Mansour’s killing was a seminal development in the United States’ War on Terror, it is highly unlikely that the same will translate into an effective closure of the United States’ military presence in Afghanistan. Similarly, owing to President Obama’s recent announcement of sending 250 additional Special Operations forces to Syria, the United States will remain in active combat in Iraq and Syria as well, until the end of his term.
According to Mark Landler, “He (Obama) will leave behind an improbable legacy as the only president in American history to serve two complete terms with the nation at war.” This stands as an instance of untoward irony for an American president who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, and ran for office as a candidate who swore to end his predecessor’s wars.
In 2011, he announced that the last combat soldier would leave Iraq by the end of that year, drawing the long misplaced war to a relieving close. However, less than three years later, he announced the dispatch of 475 military advisers back to Iraq, this time to be pit against the surge of the terrorist organization Daesh. As of last month, the number of American troops in Iraq, has grown to about 5,000.
As for Afghanistan, in May 2014, President Obama announced the withdrawal of the last combat soldier by the end of 2016. As it turned out, President Obama spoke too soon when he said, “I think Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them. Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century — not through signing ceremonies, but through decisive blows against our adversaries, transitions to elected governments, security forces who take the lead and ultimately full responsibility.” Seventeen months later, he reneged, when the Taliban resurged, and controlled more territory in the country than it did any time since 2001. The altered plan entailed the maintenance of 5,500 troops in Afghanistan until early 2017.
There exists a pattern with respect to President Obama’s stint with military engagements. In President Obama’s constant vigor to pull back from these long-standing conflicts, the President has often flip-flopped between active containment and drastic retrenchment, or more too often encouraged “leading from behind”. As witnessed in case of Iraq and Afghanistan, the flip-flopping bred social and political lacunae. In absence of an interim stabilizing force, unwarranted forces like the Taliban and Daesh, advantageously exploited the resultant vacuum either to resurge or flourish. The result of which has been repetitive, costly and prolonged military engagements – characteristic of conflict quagmires. In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, this pattern has also been astoundingly clear in the course of the United States’ policy with respect to the conflicts that spurred during his tenure.
The limited military intervention in Libya presented a testament of the said pattern. President Obama acknowledged the same, in his September 2015 speech to the United Nations General Assembly. He said, “Even as we helped the Libyan people bring an end to the reign of a tyrant, our coalition could have and should have done more to fill a vacuum left behind.” However, instead of being forewarned regarding the perils of “leading from behind,” the Libyan debacle further dissuaded President Obama from taking any decisive action when questions over the prospects of the United States intervening in Syria arose. Then, in the summer of 2012, President Obama rejected the plan to arm a group of moderate Syrian rebels. A plan chalked out by CIA Director David Patraeus and supported by administration officials like Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta. Two years later, when Daesh emerged from the resultant vacuum and sectarian strife in Syria grew rampant, President Obama approved a plan similar to the one proposed by Patraeus.
According to Fred Kaplan, differences over prospects of intervention in Syria “set off the first waves of discontent over Obama’s foreign policy in general—the notion that he did not want to use force, that he was always on the lookout for arguments that rationalized this disinclination, that he talked bold but failed to follow through, which made all his commitments ring hollow.” Many have also critiqued the administration’s resultant policy paradoxes—that the United States is arming Sunni rebels against a Shiite (Alawite) government in Syria, and a Shiite government (under Prime Minister Abadi) against Sunni rebels in Iraq. Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, has likened the policy to a Möbius strip.
As of May 2016, the UNHCR has reported 4,840,659 registered Syrian refugees, spurring the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Daesh has carried out or inspired roughly 75 terrorist attacks in 20 countries outside Syria and Iraq. The diffusion of threat perceptions has made Islamophobia rampant, and thereby fueled alarmist prophecies of an inevitable ‘Clash of Civilizations’. Thus, President Obama’s inference at the General Assembly in 2015, was rather belated with respect to Syria.
President Obama, to his credit, has successfully departed from his predecessors’ stint with military adventurism and unilateralism – that stemmed from a hubris-induced conception of American exceptionalism. President Obama has done so by employing measures of calculated retrenchment, without tipping over into honing isolationism. As enunciated in Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent feature in The Atlantic, Obama would say privately that his first task as an American president in the post-Bush international arena was “Don’t do stupid stuff.” However, that didn’t keep him from staying embroiled in the two wars he inherited from his predecessor, and one another, owing to his predisposed disinclination to use force.
President Obama has often described the transitions of American presidents as a relay race. Thus, with respect to the Middle East, in addition to Syria (and probably, Libya), the wars he inherited are the batons he shall pass on as well.
The author, Kashish Parpiani, is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. His primary research interest is the United States’ Primacy and Grand Strategy. This piece was written with research inputs from Shaasthra Shetty.