During his opening remarks at Friday’s year-ending press conference at the White House, President Obama declared that “in less than two weeks, after more than thirteen years, our combat mission in Afghanistan will be over.”
No reporter followed up with Obama on that statement—nor with any questions about Afghanistan—but they really should have. One month ago, the New York Times reported this:
President Obama decided in recent weeks to authorize a more expansive mission for the military in Afghanistan in 2015 than originally planned, a move that ensures American troops will have a direct role in fighting in the war-ravaged country for at least another year.
Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision.
This is the current two-step of US policy in Afghanistan. On the one hand, the U.S./NATO combat mission there has ostensibly ended, or “ceremonially” ended, as the Associated Press described it when the flag was lowered at NATO’s joint command earlier this month.
But at the same time, the mission is unmistakably ramping up. Just days before that flag-lowering ceremony, outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that 1,000 more US troops would stay in Afghanistan next year than was originally planned. And the deeply-sourced New York Times report indicates US forces will indeed be engaging in direct combat.
This divergence between public statements and actual policy changes for America’s longest war really ought to be explored by the media, though the scant questions Friday indicate that may not be forthcoming. Similarly, even Congressional doves who have pushed hard against Obama’s Afghanistan policy have been silent. Following the Times report last month I pushed people like Senator Jeff Merkley and the Congressional Progressive Caucus for a response—given both had demanded Congress vote before Obama extended the war past 2014—but neither office ever responded.
UPDATE: In comments to The Nation, a senior administration official reiterated the White House stance that "the United States' combat mission in Afghanistan will conclude at the end of this year," and added that "the United States will continue to maintain a counterterrorism capability in Afghanistan to continue to target the remnants of al-Qa'ida and prevent an al-Qa'ida resurgence or external plotting against U.S. targets or the homeland." This is the policy Obama announced in May, though contradicts what the Times reported last month.