Great Decisions 2012 Preview: Exiting Iraq and Afghanistan

The Great Decisions briefing book and television series on PBS take a closer look at exiting Iraq and Afghanistan. As U.S. troops drawdown from Iraq and Afghanistan, what’s the return on the American investment in blood and treasure? For more in-depth analysis, order the 2012 briefing book and DVD.


Current Situation

In October 2011, President Barack Obama announced that American troops in Iraq would leave by the close of the year. The decision came four months after the outline of a plan for a sharp withdrawal of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, initially proposed to be completed by the fall of 2012. The decision maintained the President’s campaign promise for a final drawdown of the nearly decade-long wars. In a June national address, the President stated, “Tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding." It was time, he said, to focus “on nation-building at home.” While roughly 68,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan (an increase from when President Obama took office), military action is theoretically coming to a close, and security tasks are being passed on to national forces. Yet this drawdown is not unilaterally supported, even within the two war-torn countries now desperate for sovereignty. In Iraq, debates raged around Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki’s wavering decision for a small, continued U.S. presence. Despite demonstrations against U.S. residence, military officials and politicians in Iraq and the U.S. fear for the tenuous security situation. Negotiations were brought to a halt with President’ Obama’s October announcement. In Afghanistan, debates continue between those lamenting the slow pace of withdrawal and others who fear a rapid collapse of power upon departure. It will clearly take time for the U.S. to leave its longest wars.



The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars began as a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in 2011. Then-President George W. Bush campaigned for military intervention to retaliate against Al Qaeda, while simultaneously promoting a skeptical link between the terrorist group, then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Husain, and his illegal possession of weapons of mass destruction. When there proved to be no such arsenal, the tide turned towards democracy building- the idea that the U.S. had a responsibility to instill peace and stability in the nation plagued by corruption and sectarian violence. After years of failed military strategies, countless lives lost, and billions of dollars added to U.S. debt, the unwinnable wars dragged on. President Obama’s drastic increase of activity in Afghanistan was controversial, especially for a leader who campaigned against military intervention. However, in May 2011, President Obama announced that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been found and killed hiding in Pakistan. With the original stated goal of the wars completed, public attention turned to reducing detrimental U.S. presence in the Middle East. President Obama reportedly went against military advisors, who wished to see a more secure Iraq and Afghanistan, and fulfilled his campaign promise to bring U.S. troops back home.




U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta bluntly expressed his frustration over the ongoing difficulty of leaving the decade-long wars as negotiations for the exit drag on. In Iraq, some political leaders suggested a request for continued U.S. troop presence. It was feared that too rapid a drawdown might escalate political violence and increase extremists’ legitimacy; however, domestic politics in Iraq did not allow the parliamentary vote required to keep U.S. soldiers on the ground. Still, President Obama’s October decision for a complete withdrawal in Iraq did not eliminate the possibility of keeping trainers to advise Iraqi troops. In Afghanistan, the political system is even more precarious. President Hamid Karzai rules with corruption and nepotism, the Taliban is still at large in many parts of the country, and the border with Pakistan is far from secure. In addition, the U.S. faces concerns that exiting Afghanistan too quickly could cause an economic and humanitarian crisis. The nation has relied on foreign aid for over a decade. Yet from the point of view of many U.S. citizens, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have become one of the country’s greatest quagmires. Domestic concerns, such as a high unemployment rate and rising debt, should take precedence over costly military interventions.  



Foreign forces have begun to turn over security control to national Afghan forces, in what is to be a slow transfer of power. Though the initial shifts are largely symbolic, they carry important weight for the Afghan people. Similarly, in Iraq political pundits are hopeful for a more democratic future. President Obama’s decision to leave the wars was, in the view of many, the right and perhaps only choice. Yet the process is only just beginning. Arguments continue over the fear that President Obama’s most recent decision to immediately withdraw all troops in Iraq will result in a security vacuum. Will the U.S. honor its commitment to the Iraqi and Afghan people? How can the U.S. responsibly leave its longest wars?


Key Questions

  • Should the U.S. remain in Iraq and Afghanistan? Is now the right time to withdraw?
  • What lessons has the U.S. learned? Militarily? Politically? Economically?
  • What is the current situation in Iraq? In Afghanistan? Is there hope for democracy and stability in either country?
  • Did the U.S. achieve its war-time aims? Is the U.S. safer today?
  • Can the U.S. salvage its image in the Middle East after over a decade of controversial involvement?

This Great Decisions Brief was written by Sarah Marion Shore.

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