In October of 2011, President Obama stood in the White House briefing room and set a date for the last troops leaving Iraq. He also noted that the war in Afghanistan would be over soon:
“The transition in Afghanistan is moving forward, and our troops are finally coming home.”
He went on to campaign for reelection in 2012 on the promise that he would end the war in Afghanistan like he ended the war in Iraq, saying at a June 2012 Maryland event:
“By 2014, the war in Afghanistan will be over… I have set that timeline. I intend to keep it, because after a decade of war that's cost us thousands of lives and over a trillion dollars, the nation we need to build is our own.”
But by 2013, advisors were starting to look uneasy about a strategy that had all United States troops out by 2014 — despite the fact that President Obama was still calling for an end to combat missions within the year.
In 2015, a full year after the last troops were supposed to be home, the president once again extended the timetable — although he insisted that the remaining forces would not be responsible for combat missions — after the Taliban took over Kunduz City in Kabul:
"The security situation is still very fragile, and in some places there is risk of deterioration.
While America's combat mission in Afghanistan may be over, our commitment to Afghanistan and its people endures. As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again."
By then, the stated endpoint for American involvement in Afghanistan was 2016, with President Obama saying:
"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.
We have to recognize Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one. The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans."
Six months into 2016, even that timetable seems highly unlikely. A resurgent Taliban, the remnants of al-Qaeda, and the widespread influence of the Islamic State have culminated in a decision to not only remain in country, but increase the American presence there.
James Dobbins, Obama’s representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2013-2014), explained that the change in strategy effectively acknowledged that the decision to limit the U.S. fight there to al-Qaeda hadn’t succeeded:
“It was a formula designed largely for its presentational appeal domestically, and it never made much sense strategically. So I’m pleased they’ve reverted to a more normal approach: if [the Taliban] is going to continue to be at war with us, we’re going to be at war with them.”
While the announcement included no plans to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan, it did clarify that their strictly “advisory” capacity would be expanded to allow American troops to participate in battlefield missions. Additional airstrikes will also be authorized.