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Strategic Retreat

The war on terror is far from over. Why are we coming home?

Feb 6, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 20 • By BILL ROGGIO and THOMAS JOSCELYN
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The killing of Osama bin Laden was a monumental tactical success in the war against al Qaeda. For millions, bin Laden had come to symbolize American weakness. His mere existence was a reminder that the United States, for all its military might and economic dominance, could not bring to justice a man responsible for the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans. And bin Laden was more than a symbol. Documents recovered from his safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011 reveal he was still an instrumental leader within the global terror network he established. For these reasons and more, the death of bin Laden at the hands of an elite band of Navy SEALs was a cathartic moment for the nation. But the Obama administration has used that moment to justify a strategic retreat from the global war against al Qaeda, its allies, and the terror-sponsoring states that threaten American interests. 

During his State of the Union address last week, the president did not say that America was retreating from the September 11 wars. Instead, he wanted Americans to believe that those wars had been won: Mission Accomplished. 

“Last month, I went to Andrews Air Force Base and welcomed home some of our last troops to serve in Iraq,” Obama began.

Together, we offered a final, proud salute to the colors under which more than a million of our fellow citizens fought—and several thousand gave their lives. We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world. For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country. Most of al Qaeda’s top lieutenants have been defeated. The Taliban’s momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.

You would never know from the president’s words that America’s enemies continue to fight on, even as he calls our soldiers home from the battlefields.

The justifications for this retreat were set forth in a document released by the administration in early January entitled “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.” Its purpose is to provide “strategic guidance” for the Defense Department. In a page-and-a-half introductory letter, President Obama twice used the phrase “as we end today’s wars” when discussing the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“Our Nation is at a moment of transition,” wrote the president. “Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, we have responsibly ended the war in Iraq, put al Qaeda on the path to defeat—including delivering justice to Osama bin Laden—and made significant progress in Afghanistan, allowing us to begin the transition to Afghan responsibility.”

The president’s words are disconnected from reality. Iraqi security quickly deteriorated in the weeks following the complete withdrawal of American combat troops in December. Al Qaeda in Iraq has stepped up its attacks on civilians and security forces, threatening Iraq’s fragile government. A political crisis pitting Shiite prime minister Nuri al-Maliki against Kurdish and Sunni politicians, including Iraq’s vice president, has also ensued. American forces are no longer in a position to influence these events, which has made them worse. 

The administration argues that in drawing down U.S. forces it was simply abiding by an agreement reached by the Bush administration in 2008. But as Max Boot has explained, the president and his advisers did not really want to extend or modify that agreement. The Obama administration did little to convince the Iraqis to alter its terms. In the end, the agreement provided the Obama administration with political cover for an outcome it desired. President Obama had long talked of bringing an “end” to the war—an end for American forces, mind you. Al Qaeda in Iraq and Iranian-backed militias fight on. According to the Washington Post, Iraqi officials counted about 2,640 deaths for the year ending December 31. And, according to the Post, Iraq Body Count, a nonprofit group that tallies civilian deaths using published reports, estimates “460 civilians died violently after the troops’ departure, a 35 percent increase over monthly averages for last year.”

It is impossible to see how President Obama can consider this a “responsible” end to the Iraq war. Nevertheless, if the president gets his way, America’s military forces will leave Afghanistan as well in the next two years.

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