A hallmark of the Trump administration has been the removal of U.S. military forces from foreign wars where the nation has no serious strategic interest, and has made remaining forces from Afghanistan a key focus.
Unfortunately, the president’s recent statement that he will bring home some 8,600 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan and accomplish this objective by year’s end appears to be in conflict with some military leaders who are unable to deal with either the political or military reality of the situation, and their own bias built on two decades of failed policy.
The U.S. has been in Afghanistan close to 20 years, making it the longest war in U.S. history, having claimed more than 2,300 American lives, all in an effort to defeat the Taliban — a hardline Islamist movement that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and still controls much of the country.
At the outset, the Taliban, who then controlled Afghanistan, refused to hand over al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden — responsible for the 9/11 attack — leading then-President George W. Bush to launch a military operation against bin Laden and remove the Taliban from power.
Continued U.S. presence in the Afghanistan conflict still consumes some $38 billion of taxpayer dollars annually, as well as the lives of service men, women and contractors. Not counted here is more than $40 billion the U.S. spends annually in reconstruction funds, much of which the inspector general finds has been stolen or used for nefarious purposes.
Increasingly, the national security community is willing to admit that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan serves no significant strategic interest for the nation. Since the outset of the U.S. presence in 2001, the military and their associates in the national security community have provided false narratives, misleading statistics and failed arguments as to why a continued U.S. presence is needed.
In terms of global geopolitics, Afghanistan is simply of no consequence. Since the Soviet Union ended its own ill-fated effort to govern that nation in 1978-79 it makes no real difference who governs that nation. One myth is that the current Afghan regime governs the country at all. Beyond Kabul, they prevail over a small part of that nation, and the Taliban controls most of the rest.
In recent years, the Taliban’s power and reach soared, even with U.S. troops remaining on the ground with the claimed and limited mission of “stabilizing” the country. By most any metric this has been a failure. A second myth is that U.S. military advisers are critical to the training and arming of Afghan security forces. In reality, every year a third of this force defects and take their weapons with them.
Central to the reluctance of senior military to depart Afghanistan “abruptly” as they argue, comes from the fact that many of them have personally served there over the years. Indeed, the war has covered virtually their entire military careers — and are reluctant to face the reality that this has been a largely useless enterprise. Contrary to their views, they are not “defending democracy” or promoting any strategic U.S. interest. The Taliban do not threaten the U.S. or any regional ally, and have no ability to project force beyond Afghanistan.
Apart from the issue of U.S. military forces, other key factors are largely ignored. Some 75% of the entire Afghan economy depends on the illegal drug trade and less than 20% of the population can read. The vast majority of the Afghan people have little use for any central government and apart from the Taliban. These numbers have not changed in decades and are unlikely to even if the U.S. remained there for another 20 years.
A major accomplishment of the Trump administration, which has received far too little press attention, has been the negotiations with the Taliban officials that led to a realistic “framework” of a peace deal accomplished largely by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who by any account is one of the best possible people for this task.
Central to the agreed-upon framework is that the Taliban will prevent Afghan territory from being used by groups such as al Qaeda to stage terrorist attacks which would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals. Stopping future terrorist attacks is a key strategic interest of the U.S., and a major objective of the Trump foreign policy.
Clearly, there is a risk that the Taliban might just be negotiating for a U.S. troop withdrawal, and then overrunning Kabul and killing off its opposition. In several way,s this parallels the situation faced by President Nixon in the final withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam in 1975. This was also a lengthy war that Nixon had “inherited” from prior administrations and served no U.S. strategic interest.
Realization by Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser, that this war was not “winnable” and that the government of South Vietnam would finally need to fend for itself led to difficult negotiations with North Vietnam and a final decision on the removal of all U.S. forces. At the time many in the military, who had all served in Vietnam, as well as supporters in Congress argued for a continued U.S. military presence.
Most disturbing now is an apparent lack of communication and support of the president’s clear position by senior military and even the national security adviser. In a recent radio interview on NPR, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley seemed unaware of what the president has stated, and it is unclear that he has presented the commander in chief with a plan to meet these specific objectives on the timing for removal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Possibly, this is just a short-term failure in high-level communication. It may also be the case that some senior military are watching the election clock count down and think that they can slow roll President Trump until he may become a “lame duck” and will fare better convincing an incoming Biden–Harris administration of an alternative plan.
This is not what the nation needs. The military pulled this stunt with respect to the Vietnam pullout and chaos ensued. Gen. Milley and his staff owe this president an effective plan to meet his time pullout objectives so we do not repeat such a disgraceful episode in history.
• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He is the author of the recent book “Henry Kissinger: Pragmatic Statesman in Hostile Times.”