WASHINGTON – Taking America off a permanent war footing is proving harder than President Barack Obama may have suggested.
U.S. troops are back in Iraq, the endgame in Afghanistan is requiring more troops — and perhaps more risks — than once expected and Obama is saddled with a worsening, high-stakes conflict in Syria.
Last spring, Obama described to newly minted Army officers at West Point how "the landscape has changed" after a decade of war. He cited then-dwindling conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he said Osama bin Laden, whose plotting from an al-Qaida sanctuary in Afghanistan gave rise to what became America's longest war, "is no more."
"You are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan," Obama declared to a burst of applause.
But once again the landscape has changed.
Once again the U.S. is engaged in combat in Iraq — not by soldiers on the ground but by pilots in the sky. And the Pentagon is putting "boots on the ground" to retrain and advise Iraqi soldiers how to fight a new menace: the Islamic State militants who have their roots in the Iraq insurgency that U.S. troops fought from 2003-2011.
Once again there are worsening crises demanding U.S. military intervention, including in Syria. Four months after his speech at the U.S. Military Academy, Obama authorized American pilots, joined by Arab allies, to begin bombing Islamic State targets in Syria with the aim of undermining the group's base and weakening its grip in Iraq.
And once again the U.S. is on a path that could expand or prolong its military role in Afghanistan. The U.S. combat role there ends Dec. 31, but Obama has authorized remaining U.S. troops to attack the Taliban if they pose a threat to U.S. military personnel who will continue training Afghan security forces for at least the next two years.
At his final news conference of 2014, Obama spoke just 18 words on Afghanistan, saying, "In less than two weeks, after more than 13 years, our combat mission in Afghanistan will be over."
As of Dec. 16, a total of 2,215 U.S. troops had died in Afghanistan and 19,945 had been wounded. In Iraq, 4,491 died and 32,244 wounded.
The wars produced far-reaching changes in how the military operates. Among the most significant: the frequent use of elite Special Operations forces, including the highly secretive Navy SEALs and the Army Delta force. The high pace of their counterterrorism operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and occasionally elsewhere in the Middle East, has given the president a more finely tuned tool of military power.
Shortly before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Obama, an Illinois state senator, called it a "dumb war." He warned of unforeseen costs and consequences, arguing that President George W. Bush would be smarter to finish what he started in Afghanistan.
Obama's promise to end the war in Iraq was a key to winning the White House in 2008. He delivered on that promise, but the war was not really over. Events conspired to pull Obama back in. In January 2014 the Islamic State seized the Sunni city of Fallujah, scene of the bloodiest fighting of the U.S. war a decade earlier.
The military expanded their offensive in June, sweeping across much of northern Iraq and capturing key cities, including Mosul. Whole divisions of the Iraqi army folded, abandoning tanks and other American-supplied war equipment to the militants. That was not just a boon to the militants. It was a blow to U.S. prestige.
Suddenly, inexplicably, Baghdad seemed within the Islamic State's reach.
Two months later Obama gave the go-ahead for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. He ruled out sending ground combat forces, but at some point next year he may face yet another tough choice: whether to allow U.S. military advisers to accompany Iraqi ground forces as they launch major counteroffensives, including an expected push to retake Mosul. Up to now, U.S. advisers have been coordinating with Iraqi forces from a safer distance.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, repeatedly has said he will recommend ground combat troops if necessary.
As Obama approaches the end of his sixth year in office he awaits Congress' formal endorsement of his new war against Islamic State. The administration wants a legal basis for the war, known as an authorization for use of military force, rather than continuing to rely on congressional resolution granted after 9/11 to justify the invasion of Afghanistan, wage war in Iraq and pursue al-Qaida elsewhere.
Obama has not shied away from using limited military force in other places, such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, when he decided that terrorists there threatened the U.S. Just weeks ago he authorized a U.S. commando raid in Yemen to rescue a U.S. civilian held hostage by al-Qaida's affiliate there. The hostage, Luke Somers, was shot just as the commandos arrived and died of his wounds in U.S. custody.
Obama insists he has kept his word to end America's big wars, the occupations and nation-building efforts that began with such promise in both Afghanistan and Iraq but ultimately defied U.S. hopes for clear victories.
In his speech Dec. 15 at Fort Dix, N.J., Obama said 90 percent of the troops that were deployed to war zones when he took office are now home.
"The time of deploying large numbers of ground forces with big military footprints to engage in nation-building overseas — that's coming to an end," he said. "Going forward, our military will be leaner" but ready for "a range of missions."
This era of U.S. wars began in Afghanistan. On Oct. 7, 2001, less than a month after teams of terrorists hijacked U.S. airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, America invaded Afghanistan to root out al-Qaida and topple its host, the Taliban.
The war's architects, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, deliberately kept U.S. troops levels low, hoping a new Washington-friendly Afghan government under Hamid Karzai would quickly take control and allow the U.S. to move on. In February 2002 there were only 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan.
In 2003 the U.S. tried to move on. It turned its attention to Iraq, launching an invasion that swiftly toppled President Saddam Hussein but created a security vacuum and sectarian division. A deadly insurgency followed.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan the Taliban mounted a comeback no one in Washington seemed to see coming, turning the war there into the longest in American history. By the summer of 2006, Rumsfeld got a whiff of Karzai's concern about the Taliban's growing threat. A reporter asked Karzai if he was asking for more U.S. troops.
"Yes, much more," Karzai replied. "And we'll keep asking for more. And we will never stop asking."
By the time Obama took office in January 2009, the U.S. had 34,400 troops in Afghanistan, according to Pentagon records. He tripled the total, to 100,000, in 2010 in a bid to turn the tide and defeat the Taliban. That aim was never achieved; the Taliban took a heavy pounding in 2010-2011, but it remains a force to be reckoned with, in part because of sanctuaries it enjoys across the border in Pakistan.
The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has dropped to a bit more than 11,000 from about 38,500 in January. Obama's original plan was to go down to 9,800 by the end of this year and limit forces to advising the Afghans and only fighting al-Qaida, not the Taliban. That plan, too, has changed.
About 1,000 additional U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan for a few months to fill in for other coalition forces that Washington hopes will arrive by spring 2015. The U.S. will continue to target Taliban insurgents who threaten either Afghans or Americans.
"The recent wave of Taliban attacks has made clear that the international community must not waiver in its support for a stable, secure and prosperous Afghanistan," Chuck Hagel said this month during his last visit to Afghanistan as defense secretary.
When Obama announced what was dubbed "the surge" of extra troops in 2009, he also said he would start bringing some U.S. troops home in July 2011.
Obama was trying to telegraph to war opponents — and Afghans as well — that America's commitment was not open-ended. But critics argued the two-pronged statement essentially gave the Taliban a heads-up about when U.S. forces would be leaving, allowing them to simply wait.
The tens of thousands of extra troops streamed into Afghanistan, where they soon opened a major offensive in the south in places like Marjah, a booby-trapped, mud-brick city in Helmand province where Marines encountered death at every corner. The city was a Taliban hub and base for their lucrative opium trade. The fight in Marjah was the run-up to a larger showdown in 2010 in neighboring Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban.
The game plan behind the double offensive was to flood the area with troops, rout the militants and rush in new governance, development projects and security to win the loyalty of Afghans living in the Taliban strongholds. The results of the counterinsurgent strategy have been mixed.
The strategy also involved a plan for international forces to train and equip the Afghan forces so they could eventually secure their own homeland. That milestone, which gained little attention, was reached in June 2013.
"That was really the transition point," said Jarrett Blanc, deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department. "And the fact that there hasn't been the sort of catastrophic effects that some people might have feared, I think, is an indication that the strategy of standing the Afghan forces up and helping them fight their own fight is working."
The war slogged on through 2013 as the Pentagon moved tens of thousands of heavy armored vehicles out of the country, packing and shipping tons of gear and closing bases.
Amid the pullout, U.S.-Afghan relations sunk to a new low. Karzai refused to sign a bilateral security agreement that would set the legal parameters for the residual force to stay in Afghanistan.
The White House is hoping for better relations with Afghanistan now that Karzai has left office. Securing new leadership for the country, however, wasn't easy.
The presidential election in April and a runoff in June were so divisive and riddled with fraud that fears rose that the country was unraveling. Eventually, the two candidates agreed to run the country together with Ashraf Ghani as president and Abdullah Abdullah as chief executive. The new government, which took office in September, has pledged to institute reforms in the government and the military.
Ghani longs for an Afghanistan where a grandfather can safely take a walk with his granddaughter, or a young student can go to school confident of not being blown up.
"What we strive for is normalcy," he says.
His hope is hinged on the unanswered question of whether the Afghan forces will be up to the job.