WASHINGTON - Taking America off a permanent war footing is proving harder than President Barack Obama may have suggested. U.S. troops are back in Iraq, the endgame in Afghanistan is requiring more troops — and perhaps more risks — than once expected and Obama is saddled with a worsening, high-stakes conflict in Syria.
Last spring, Obama described to newly minted army officers at the West Point academy how “the landscape has changed” after a decade of war. He cited then-dwindling conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he said Osama bin Laden, whose plotting from an al-Qaida sanctuary in Afghanistan gave rise to what became America’s longest war, “is no more.”
“You are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Obama declared to a burst of applause.
But once again the landscape has changed.
Once again the U.S. is engaged in combat in Iraq — not by soldiers on the ground but by pilots in the sky. And the Pentagon is putting “boots on the ground” to retrain and advise Iraqi soldiers how to fight a new menace: the militants from the Islamic State group who emerged from the Iraq insurgency that U.S. troops fought from 2003-2011.
Once again there are worsening crises demanding U.S. military intervention, including in Syria. Four months after his speech at the U.S. Military Academy, Obama authorized American pilots, joined by Arab allies, to begin bombing Islamic State targets with the aim of undermining the group’s base and weakening its grip in Iraq.
And once again the U.S. is on a path that could expand or prolong its military role in Afghanistan. The U.S. combat role there ended Dec. 31, but Obama has authorized remaining U.S. troops to attack the Taliban if they pose a threat to U.S. military personnel who are training Afghan security forces for at least the next two years.
At his final news conference of 2014, Obama offered just 18 words on Afghanistan, saying, “In less than two weeks, after more than 13 years, our combat mission in Afghanistan will be over.”
As of Dec. 16, a total of 2,215 U.S. troops had died in Afghanistan and 19,945 had been wounded. In Iraq, 4,491 died and 32,244 wounded.
Shortly before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Obama, then an Illinois state senator, called it a “dumb war.” He warned of unforeseen costs and consequences, arguing that President George W. Bush would be smarter to finish what he started in Afghanistan.
Obama’s promise to end the war in Iraq was a key to winning the White House in 2008. He delivered on that promise, but the war was not really over. Events conspired to pull Obama back in. In January 2014 the Islamic State group seized the Sunni city of Fallujah, scene of the bloodiest fighting of the U.S. war a decade earlier.
In June, the militants expanded their offensive, sweeping across much of northern Iraq and capturing key cities, including Mosul. Whole divisions of the Iraqi Army folded, abandoning tanks and other American-supplied war equipment. That was not just a boon to the militants. It was a blow to U.S. prestige.
Suddenly, inexplicably, Baghdad seemed within the Islamic State group’s reach.
Two months later Obama gave the go-ahead for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. He ruled out sending ground combat forces, but at some point next year may face another tough choice: whether to allow U.S. military advisers to accompany Iraqi ground forces as they launch counteroffensives, including an expected push to retake Mosul. Up to now, U.S. advisers have been coordinating with Iraqi forces from a safer distance.
As Obama approaches the end of his sixth year in office, he awaits Congress’ formal endorsement of his new war against Islamic State militants. The administration wants a legal basis for the war, known as an authorization for use of military force, rather than continuing to rely on congressional resolutions granted after 9/11 to justify the invasion of Afghanistan, wage the Iraq war and pursue al-Qaida elsewhere.
Obama insists he has kept his word to end America’s big wars, the occupations and nation-building efforts that began with such promise in both Afghanistan and Iraq but ultimately defied U.S. hopes for clear victories.
In a Dec. 15 speech, Obama said 90 percent of the troops that were deployed to war zones when he took office are now home.
“The time of deploying large numbers of ground forces with big military footprints to engage in nation-building overseas — that’s coming to an end,” he said. “Going forward, our military will be leaner” but ready for “a range of missions.”
This era of U.S. wars began in Afghanistan. On Oct. 7, 2001, less than a month after teams of terrorists hijacked U.S. airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, America invaded Afghanistan to root out al-Qaida and topple its host, the Taliban.
By the time Obama took office in January 2009 the U.S. had 34,400 troops in Afghanistan, according to Pentagon records. He tripled the total, to 100,000, in 2010 in a bid to turn the tide and defeat the Taliban. That aim was never achieved; the Taliban took a heavy pounding in 2010-2011, but it remains a force to be reckoned with, in part because of sanctuaries it enjoys in neighboring Pakistan.
The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has dropped to a bit more than 11,000 from about 38,500 in January. But Obama’s original plan to go down to 9,800 by the end of this year and limit forces to advising the Afghans and only fighting al-Qaida — not the Taliban — has changed.
About 1,000 additional U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan for a few months to fill in for other coalition forces that Washington hopes will arrive by spring 2015. The U.S. will continue to target Taliban insurgents who threaten either Afghans or Americans.