President Trump plans to pull about 4,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan early in 2020, officials in his administration reported in mid-December, a partial withdrawal that would put American force levels in our longest war exactly where they were when Trump entered office. Three years gone, thousands of American and Afghan lives lost, tens of billions in debt-funded spending, and we’re right back where we started, with an apparently permanent entanglement in the longest war in U.S. history.
That futility and strategic failure has been a defining feature of the foreign policy of the 2010s. A decade ago, we were nine years into the War in Afghanistan and seven years on in Iraq. Both wars were increasingly unpopular: Public opinion had turned against the invasion of Iraq several years prior, and although support for the initial invasion of Afghanistan remained a little longer in the black, perspectives on the war in general were also pessimistic.
President Obama was just two years into his first term, following a campaign in which he’d promised to repudiate the foreign policy mistakes of his predecessor. Instead he built on them, and, after a similarly critical candidacy, President Trump has done the same. Both presidents insisted on their opposition to “endless wars,” but both escalated U.S. military intervention more often than they restrained it.
The war in Afghanistan, the rotting heart of U.S. foreign policy, is exemplary here, but not unique. The last decade saw Obama reject the small-footprint approach of the Bush administration in favor of a surge, deploying as many as 100,000 Americans at once in the first half of the decade. Although he announced an end to U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan at the close of 2014, it is impossible to say in retrospect that Obama ended this conflict in any ordinary sense of the word.
Five years later, ahead of Trump’s intended drawdown, there are more American soldiers in Afghanistan than there were at Obama’s point of “victory.” Negotiations with the Taliban, in which the United States has no real leverage or need to participate, are still floundering, moving us no closer to exit.
Even after The Washington Post’s recent publication of the “Afghanistan papers”—a trove of documents showing Washington guilty of years of willful deception of the American people about its Afghan intervention—even now, there is no apparent appetite in Congress or the White House for actually ending this worse-than-useless war.
Much the same can be said of Iraq. Where once Trump wondered why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not impeach former President George W. Bush “for the war,” for “[getting] us into the war with lies,” he now continues that very fight. U.S. troop levels in Iraq declined precipitously at the beginning of the 2010s, but have inched back up since and are currently estimated around 6,000, a larger number than were deployed there for much of the decade.
The second round of the Iraq war, occasioned by the rise of the Islamic State, ended several years ago. Baghdad declared victory over the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2017, and the United States killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi this fall. So why is the war still going? What is its aim? What would be considered victory? Will U.S. troops ever come home? These are questions policymakers are unwilling to answer, and this war, too, rages on indefinitely.
Elsewhere in the greater Middle East, these 10 years have likewise been a decade of escalation. Obama meddled in Libya, helping to oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi and plunge the North African nation into chaos from which it has yet to recover. Sold as humanitarian intervention, the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization intervention is now thought to have prolonged the initial phase of the conflict and increased its civilian death toll.
Meanwhile, recklessly erratic U.S. meddling in Syria has likely lengthened the Syrian civil war, to say nothing of putting American troops at risk of unwanted conflict with hostile powers operating in close quarters, most notably Russia and Iran.
The Obama and Trump administrations have each supported the Saudi coalition intervention in Yemen’s civil war, a proxy fight with Iran that has produced the world’s worse humanitarian crisis. Trump persisted in backing Riyadh in its commission of war crimes despite overwhelming public disapproval and a bipartisan congressional vote against continuing the intervention.
While ordinary Yemenis face famine and medicine shortages, epidemic cholera, and careless coalition strikes on civilian targets, U.S. forces are facilitating Saudi Arabia’s lust for political and religious dominance of its region. American security interests, to say nothing of Yemen’s suffering, are apparently irrelevant.
The tail end of this decade has seen Trump growing the number of U.S. troops to the Middle East and Africa, with a fresh 14,000 sent to the Gulf region this fall alone. A total of around 200,000 American soldiers are stationed worldwide as 2019 comes to a close, fewer than in 2010 but pretty average for the post-Cold War era.
“We more and more are not wanting to be the policemen of the world,” Trump said last year, but he has taken no meaningful steps to change Washington’s interventionist posture, following in Obama’s footsteps of castigating the very foreign policy he pursues.
Thus Washington ends this decade with a global police force 200,000 strong; trillions in war debt and another bloated Pentagon budget; and half a dozen wars, depending on how you count them, to say nothing of rising tensions with Iran, North Korea, China, and Russia. Our foreign policy of the last 10 years was strategically unmoored, plus frequently counterproductive and inhumane. May the next decade of foreign policy see an overdue pivot to restraint and peace.