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President Obama: The Legacy

Obama’s Afghanistan Legacy: What Trump Faces in America’s Longest War

The Afghan war and the evolution of Obama 8:27

KABUL, Afghanistan — Shamim Seyal should be a symbol of all that Afghanistan has achieved with the help of the U.S.

Instead, the principal of a large school for girls is on the shifting frontline of America’s longest war, an example of the raw resilience needed to simply survive in the country.

“Sometimes there are Taliban checkpoints and sometimes Afghan government checkpoints beside the school,” said Seyal, who runs the Fatima Al-Zahra School in the city of Kunduz, which has been fought over for years and briefly fell into the militant group's hands in September 2015.

Seyal and her family have been targeted by the insurgents, who often try to kill prominent women and destroy girls’ schools. They have also been forced to flee their home after being threatened by the Taliban.

It was not supposed to be this way when President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

As a candidate, he pledged to run extremists out of the country.

Image: Afghan Taliban fighters
Afghan Taliban fighters in the western province of Farah in November 2015. JAVED TANVEER / AFP - Getty Images

But to the dismay of millions of Afghans, the war has not been won or even finished. In fact, many believe the group, which harbored Osama bin Laden before and after the 9/11 attacks, is resurgent.

Analysts say they pose a threat not only to Afghanistan but potentially elsewhere in the world.

Here is a glimpse of Obama’s legacy in Afghanistan, and what the president is bequeathing President-elect Donald Trump.

What did Obama pledge to do?

As a candidate, Obama complained that his predecessor George W. Bush had missed crucial opportunities in the region.

“We could have deployed the full force of American power to hunt down and destroy Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and all of the terrorists responsible for 9/11, while supporting real security in Afghanistan,” he said during a speech on July 15, 2008.

As president, Obama declared, he would “make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win.”

The U.S. “will be taking the fight to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he said.

So how did that fight go?

Bin Laden was killed in a U.S. raid in Pakistan on May 1, 2011, so that was a major success.

The death of the Afghan Taliban’s leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, in a U.S. drone strike on May 21, 2016 — again in Pakistan — dealt the insurgents another blow.

According to Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, the Obama administration was successful in putting al Qaeda "on its back feet and disrupting al Qaeda safe havens."

But when it came to pushing back the Taliban back and strengthening Afghan authorities “there has not been success,” she said.

Curtis pointed to Obama’s 2009 decision to launch a troop surge in Afghanistan during a speech at West Point.

“In the very next breath he announced the date those forces would withdraw,” she said. “It is not an effective strategy to tell the enemy when you are going to retreat.”

And Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous countries on the planet when it comes to violent extremism. In September, the top U.S. commander in the country Gen. John Nicholson, estimated that 20 of the 98 U.S. or U.N.-designated terrorist organizations were in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

“This is highest concentration … in any area in the world,” he said.

What's the Pakistan connection?

At the beginning of his presidency, Obama decried nuclear-armed Pakistan’s history of meddling in the affairs of its weaker neighbor and allegedly aiding and sheltering some terror groups while going after others. Pakistani officials have repeatedly denied these charges.

In 2008, then-candidate Obama promised to focus the fight on the tribal regions on Pakistan, “where terrorists train and insurgents strike into Afghanistan.”

“Make no mistake — we can’t succeed in Afghanistan or secure our homeland unless we change our Pakistan policy,” he said.

Image: Afghan security forces
Afghan security forces patrol in Kunduz in April 2015. Omar Sobhani / Reuters

According to Curtis, Pakistan has not changed its ways enough, and she advised the new administration to “take certain risks” with the government there.

“I’m not talking about making an enemy out Pakistan … (but) we need to start enforcing the conditions on [U.S.] aid and be willing to push the envelope to a certain degree.”

She suggested aid to the country and its major non-NATO ally status — a designation given to close military allies — “may be in jeopardy if they don’t demonstrate that they are in fact an ally in the fight against terrorism.”

How much territory do insurgents control?

The majority of Afghans — nearly 70 percent — live in districts under Afghan government control or influence, according to U.S. military estimates in late 2016. Nearly 10 percent are under insurgent control or influence, while the rest of the country lives in so-called “contested areas” — essentially up for grabs.

That the government in Kabul still does not control swaths of the country is a cause for alarm, said Haroun Mir, a political analyst at the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies.

“We have tremendous security challenges,” he said, pointing to the fact that the Taliban has challenged the Afghan security forces and gained the territory over the last few years — especially since the U.S. officially ended its combat mission in the country in December 2014.

Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi dismissed these fears as overblown, however, saying the Taliban does not control “any strategic places" in the country.

The insurgents launch attacks on other areas from these low-population areas, he said.

“When it comes to control of the territory, of course the Afghan government, the Afghan people, they have full control of their territory,” he said.

Sediqqi did acknowledge that the government has seen “an increase in the level of attacks by the Taliban."

The c-word

Security cannot be discussed without also talking about corruption.

For one thing, as Kabul loses legitimacy through corruption, the Taliban often gains it through their own parallel systems of government and justice.

“That is a dangerous thing," said Mir, the analyst. That’s because while extremely harsh, the Taliban are seen as more efficient and less corrupt than the Afghan government.

"They are famous for their delivery of justice,” he said.

Mir is far from alone in sounding the alarm over graft and impunity.

Related: 12 Ways Your Tax Dollars Were Squandered in Afghanistan

John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) — the government's leading oversight authority on reconstruction in the country — has called corruption “widespread and rampant.”

“Corruption and poor leadership go hand in hand in Afghanistan,” he said in a speech on Jan. 11.

In 2014, Gen. John Allen, the ex-head of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, called corruption — not the Taliban — the existential threat to Afghanistan.

How many U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan?

While the U.S. ended its official combat role in Afghanistan in Dec. 2014, there are still around 8,500 U.S. troops there.

Image: U.S. Soldiers Continue Patrols Outside FOB Shank In Afghanistan
A U.S. soldier patrols across barren foothills outside of Forward Operating Base Shank near Pul-e Alam, Afghanistan, on March 30, 2014. Scott Olson / Getty Images

The Americans both advise Afghan troops in their fight against the Taliban and, separately, hunt and kill al Qaeda and ISIS-linked affiliated fighters.

This is down from more than 100,000 in 2010.

What about dollars and cents?

More than $115 billion taxpayer dollars have been spent in Afghanistan since 2002, with another $7.5 billion appropriated but not yet spent, according to SIGAR.

International donors have said they would provide financial support to the country and its security forces until 2020, with the U.S. making up the lion’s share at around $5 billion per year.

The U.S. has stumped up more than $64 billion since 2002 — $3.45 billion in 2016 alone — to support the Afghan security forces.

Are people still dying?

Yes, lots of them. According to the U.N., the first six months of 2016 saw the highest number of civilian casualties on record since 2009 — 1,601 killed and 3,565 injured. Nearly one-in-three casualties were children, while more than 500 were women.

What does Trump and his team have to do?

The Heritage Foundation's Curtis says the first thing the new administration needs to acknowledge is that "the security situation is extremely vulnerable" in Afghanistan and the strategy will have to be reassessed.

"We need to push the Taliban back and we can’t afford to let them re-dominate the country," she said. "Both because that will turn back all the social and economic gains that have been made in the country but also because they will then provide safe havens for international terrorists intent on attacking us."

Image: U.S. troops in Afghanistan
U.S. troops patrol the edge of a village near Pul-e Alam, Afghanistan, on March 29, 2014. Scott Olson / Getty Images