It’s been called shocking, stunning, chaotic, shameful, embarrassing, saddening, and humiliating. But one adjective that should never be used to describe the US retreat from Afghanistan—and what it represents—is “surprising.” In fact, what happened in Kabul in 2021 was the natural next step on the inward-turning path Americans began walking in 2009.
Much was made—and rightly so—of President Donald Trump’s often-boorish treatment of allies and shoulder-shrugging response to America’s central role in maintaining some semblance of international order. But for those with eyes to see, all of those isolationist indicators were on display during his predecessor’s presidency.
Too many forget that in 2009 President Barack Obama unilaterally pulled the plug on missile-defense plans for Eastern Europe—plans endorsed by the entire NATO alliance. Worse, he did so “without even informing the Polish prime minister in a timely manner,” as historian George Weigel recalls. Poland’s Defense Ministry called Obama’s reversal “catastrophic.” The Czechs angrily rejected Obama’s watered-down Plan B as “a consolation prize.”
That same year, the Obama administration offloaded Guantanamo detainees onto the British colony of Bermuda—without consulting Britain. “This is not the kind of behavior one expects from an ally,” a British official declared.
In 2011, the Obama administration employed the peculiar phrase “leading from behind” to justify its stand-off approach to NATO operations in Libya. What the White House learned after floating that unfortunate phrase was that no one likes a backseat driver. America’s NATO allies rightly expected leadership from Washington. What they got was the Obama administration’s insistence that America would play only a “supporting role”—and a stunning declaration at one point during the operation that access to US air power “expires on Monday.” What a bruising metaphor for American leadership during the Obama presidency.
By mid-2011, as he began to focus on reelection, Obama laid out his plan to withdraw from Afghanistan by telling the American people it was “time to focus on nation-building here at home.” That phrase was a soothing reassurance to Americans that the war on terror was coming to an end, that their desire to turn inward was justified.
Also in 2011, in hopes of reining in the deficit, the Obama administration proposed $1 trillion in cuts—divided between defense and certain domestic programs—in the event that a special congressional committee proved unable to agree on deficit reduction. As Gen. James Mattis put it, sequestration was “a mechanism meant to be so injurious to the military it would never go into effect.” But the committee’s members couldn’t agree on how to reduce spending, and the automatic cuts known as sequestration came down like a guillotine on America’s military. Sequestration would lop off $500 billion in planned defense spending. Importantly, even before sequestration, the Pentagon had already been ordered to cut $487 billion from its spending plans, which means the Pentagon would lose nearly $1 trillion in expected resources by the time sequestration had run its course.
The consequences were devastating. But don’t take my word for it. “No enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of our military than sequestration,” Mattis concluded. Thanks in large part to sequestration, the Air Force stood down 31 squadrons and made do with “half-size squadrons,” as Military.com reported. In 2011, the Army’s active-duty end strength was 566,000; after sequestration, it was 476,000—down from 480,000 before 9/11. In other words, sequestration left America with a smaller Army in a time of war than it fielded in a time of peace. Sequestration grounded half of the Marines’ fixed-wing fighters. The situation was so dire that, incredibly, Marine aviation units were reduced to salvaging aircraft parts from museums to keep planes flying. Sequestration left 53 percent of Navy aircraft unable to fly—twice the historic average, as Defense News would report—and left America with just 277 active deployable ships. By way of context, then-CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert reported in 2014, “For us to meet what combatant commanders request, we need a Navy of 450 ships.”
The inevitable, predictable consequence of this bipartisan gamble was to shrink America’s reach and role in the world. As Robert Gates warned in 2011, in one of his last addresses as secretary of Defense, “If we are going to reduce the resources and the size of the US military, people need to make conscious choices about what the implications are for the security of the country… The tough choices ahead are really about the kind of role the American people—accustomed to unquestioned military dominance for the past two decades—want their country to play in the world.”
Not surprisingly, Gates recognized that a war-weary and increasingly world-weary America was drifting toward retreat and retrenchment. The consequences were on full display in Kabul, as the most powerful country on earth sent an underequipped and undermanned taskforce to mount a frantic humanitarian evacuation—with the grudging permission of an enemy that military had ousted years earlier. What America’s military lacked in resources it made up for in heroism and skill. Even so, the warning Gates delivered a decade ago had been brought to life.
As 2011 came to a close, Obama withdrew US forces from Iraq—disregarding the recommendations of Gen. Lloyd Austin (then-commander of US forces in Iraq); Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen; Gen. Martin Dempsey (Mullen’s successor); and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Predictably, al-Qaeda in Iraq reconstituted and rebranded itself into something worse (ISIS); Baghdad was nearly overrun; Yazidis, Shiites, and Christians were massacred; ISIS declared a jihadist state in the heart of the Middle East; and US troops were rushed back into Iraq.
In 2012, Obama drew his “red line” in Syria, warning that America would respond if chemical weapons were used. But when Assad crossed that line in 2013, Obama erased it. The cascading consequences included expanded and ongoing use of weapons of mass destruction, a heightened sense of insecurity among regional allies, and the return of Russia to a region from which it had been exiled since the end of the Cold War.
In 2013, after the French military requested US air support in its fight against jihadists in Mali, the Obama administration sent Paris an invoice for reimbursement. That same year, the Obama administration withdrew all of America’s heavy armor from Europe—the first time since 1944 Europe was left unprotected by American tanks. Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2014. When Ukraine asked Washington for weapons to defend itself, Obama sent nonlethal aid. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s response spoke volumes: “One cannot win the war with blankets.”
In 2016, as a parting shot, Obama publicly criticized Britain and France in a magazine interview, noting that “free riders aggravate me” and then boasting how he lectured Britain’s prime minister, “You have to pay your fair share.”
Although Trump ended sequestration’s maiming of the military, he continued and indeed accelerated the disengagement that began under Obama. In a surprising echo of his predecessor, Trump used virtually the same language to explain the pullback: “We have to build our own nation… We have to focus on ourselves.” He embraced the historically fraught “America First” label, and he described “trying to topple various people”—we can infer he was talking about Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qadhafi—as “a tremendous disservice… to humanity.”
In another echo of Obama, Trump demanded that longtime allies Japan and South Korea pay “substantially more” for America’s security guarantee. He called NATO “obsolete” and suggested he would come to the defense of NATO members under attack—an ironclad requirement of the North Atlantic Treaty—only if they had “fulfilled their obligations to us.” Worse, he deleted a sentence from his 2017 NATO speech reaffirming Washington’s commitment to NATO’s all-for-one defense clause. Doubly worse, he privately and publicly raised the possibility of pulling the US out of NATO.
Speaking of pullouts, Trump’s 2019 decision to pull US troops out of Syria and greenlight Turkey’s offensive against Syria’s Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—a decision, as with Obama in Iraq, made over the objections of his military advisors—sent a terrible signal to our partners and undermined our own efforts. “What was working in Syria was that for very little investment, the Kurds were doing all the fighting, the vast majority of the dying, and we were providing intelligence and fire support assistance. And we were winning,” explained Gen. John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff.
Trump’s Defense secretary (Mattis) and envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition (Brett McGurk) resigned over Trump’s Syria pullout. Undeterred, Trump defended his decision by noting that the Kurds “didn’t help us with Normandy” and pointing out that Syria is “7,000 miles away.” Never mind that the oceans cannot protect us from faraway threats (as Pearl Harbor and 9/11 should have taught us), but what kind of message did that send to South Korea (5,820 miles away and didn’t help us at Normandy), Lithuania (4,450 miles away and didn’t help us at Normandy), Taiwan (6,698 miles away and didn’t help us at Normandy)?
In 2019, Trump ordered his negotiators to cut a deal with the Taliban and rapidly cut US troop levels in Afghanistan. Remarkably, Trump was so focused on withdrawing from Afghanistan that he had secretly offered to host the Taliban at Camp David. Those plans were upended by Taliban attacks in Kabul that killed 12 people, including a US servicemember. But negotiations with the very people who made 9/11 possible continued, and a peace deal was signed in February 2020. “The internationally recognized Afghan government, led by Ashraf Ghani, was not included in the negotiations,” as longtime CIA official Bruce Riedel shockingly reported at the time. “By accepting the Taliban demand to exclude the Afghan government, the Trump administration betrayed our ally.” Trump ordered all US personnel out of Afghanistan by May 1, 2021.
Finally, in 2020, Trump ordered the withdrawal of 12,000 US troops from Germany. With Russia on the march and menacing NATO’s easternmost members, that was both senseless and reckless.
The United States, like all great powers, conducts foreign and defense policy based on its own interests. But America is not just a great power; we also see ourselves as a good nation. On our best days, we remember the biblical admonition, “From the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked,” and we strive to put it into practice. To be sure, our leaders—chosen by us and representing us—make calculations, tradeoffs, compromises, and mistakes in conducting foreign and defense policy on our behalf. But more often than not, their policies are governed by enlightened self-interest—the notion that stabilizing broken places, keeping our word and our commitments, helping other nations defend themselves, and promoting some semblance of international order ultimately serves our interests.
The chaos of Kabul was not just the natural next step for a world-weary America; it was a microcosm of what the world will look like if America keeps ignoring the guideposts of enlightened self-interest, keeps focusing on nation-building at home, keeps mistreating its allies, keeps underfunding its military, keeps walking down its current path. Part two of this series will discuss the steps President Joe Biden has taken on that path.