Retreat, Return, Repeat
The Trump administration has announced a long-awaited peace deal with the Taliban and a phased, “conditions-based” total withdrawal from Afghanistan. Yet as these words are being typed, the U.S. military confirms it has conducted airstrikes against Taliban fighters. The reason: Our Taliban partners in peace carried out 43 attacks—on a single day—against Afghan security forces in Helmand Province. This is an indication of where Afghanistan is headed—and a reminder of where we’ve been.
The peace deal calls on the U.S. to decrease troop strength from the current 12,000 troops down to 8,600 troops over the next 135 days, with a full U.S. withdrawal 14 months from now. For its part, the Taliban vows that it “will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
That is why it pays to recall, U.S. troops have been fighting in Afghanistan since the autumn of 2001. They didn’t go to war for oil or territory. They went to war in Afghanistan because the Taliban regime allowed Afghanistan to be used as a training ground and launching pad for Osama bin Laden’s global guerilla war. On September 11, 2001, that war reached our shores. Amidst all the talk of “ending endless wars” and “nation-building here at home,” too many Americans somehow forget or willfully ignore this.
Indeed, given that more than 60 percent of the public wants to withdraw from Afghanistan, President Donald Trump is undeniably in step with the American people. But if history is any guide, we will regret abandoning Afghanistan (again), trusting the Taliban and disengaging from the world.
We’ve been here before. After the Soviets quit Afghanistan in 1988-89, Washington’s interest in that broken country evaporated. “As soon as the Soviets left Afghanistan, we turned our backs on Afghanistan,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recalls.
In 2009, leaders in the region implored Washington to resist the temptation to withdraw and instead “build on learning from the mistakes of the past.”
Neither the Obama administration nor the Trump administration showed much interest in learning from past mistakes.
Recall that President Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to withdraw from Iraq and made good on that promise in 2011. Obama always viewed U.S. involvement in Iraq as a problem to be corrected, rather than a commitment to be sustained. As former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta laments, the Obama White House was “so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”
The Pentagon consensus was that Iraq needed the U.S. military to sustain the upward trajectory of the surge and to keep a lid on al Qaeda in Iraq (which had been eviscerated by the surge). Frederick Kagan, chief architect of the surge, explained that “Painstaking staff work…led Gen. Lloyd Austin to recommend trying to keep more than 20,000 troops in Iraq after the end of 2011.” Before leaving his post as Joint Chiefs Chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen urged the White House to keep at least 16,000 troops in Iraq. “None of us recommended that we completely withdraw from Iraq,” according to Gen. Martin Dempsey (Mullen’s successor).
Predictably, al Qaeda in Iraq reconstituted and rebranded itself as ISIS; Baghdad was nearly overrun; Yazidis, Shiites and Christians were massacred; ISIS declared a jihadist state in the heart of the Middle East; and Obama grudgingly sent American troops back to Iraq.
“Under no circumstance should the Trump administration repeat the mistake its predecessor made in Iraq and agree to a total withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan,” warns Gen. David Petraeus, calling a full pullout from Afghanistan “even more ill-advised and risky than the Obama administration’s disengagement from Iraq.”
His solution: “The U.S. must retain its own means to pressure extremist networks plotting against the American homeland and U.S. allies,” which means “some number of American forces in Afghanistan, along with substantial enablers such as unmanned aerial vehicles and close air support.” Without such a force, he predicts “full-blown civil war and the re-establishment of a terrorist sanctuary as existed when the 9/11 attacks were planned there.”
Obama didn’t listen to such counsel regarding Iraq, and Trump isn’t listening regarding Afghanistan. Instead, Trump says, “Great nations do not fight endless wars.” Similarly, Obama said he was “was elected to end wars.”
These twin sentiments make for good politics, but they arguably reflect a misunderstanding of the commander-in-chief’s role in a time of war—and America’s role in maintaining some semblance of international order. After all, 18 years in, the Cold War, like the war on terror, seemed like an “endless war.” And it pays to recall that America has been engaged in “endless” missions in Germany since 1944, Japan since 1945, Korea since 1950, Kuwait since 1991, Kosovo since 1999.
Still, elections have consequences, and there’s something to be said about trying to make peace. However, in unilaterally trying to end the wars of 9/11, Trump and Obama have ignored a fundamental truth of human conflict: The enemy gets a vote. As Gen. James Mattis puts it, “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over.”
As if to underscore Mattis’s point and Petraeus’s prediction, the Afghan government reports 76 Taliban attacks in 24 provinces—all in the five days immediately after the peace deal was signed.
That brings us to the issue of trust.
A durable peace between warring sides presupposes one of two conditions: Either one side concedes defeat (Imperial Japan on the Missouri), or both sides truly desire an end to hostilities (Sadat and Begin at Camp David).
The first kind of peace is a function of what happens on the battlefield; it’s the byproduct of a simple calculus made by the party conceding defeat. The second kind requires some modicum of trust between the warring sides. Neither condition has been met in Afghanistan.
The Taliban “controls or…contests almost half the country’s 407 districts," according to Pentagon estimates. In addition, there are 20 foreign terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda and ISIS, at work in Afghanistan. In short, the Taliban and their partners have not been defeated.
Nor have the Taliban given us reason to trust them to fulfill their promises. Even as they talked peace, Taliban militants launched large-scale attacks in Kunduz and Kabul. In late 2018, the Taliban targeted and nearly killed the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. A Taliban commander declares, “We will continue our fight against the Afghan government and seize power by force.” (Speaking of the Afghan government, peace talks with the Taliban left out our partners in Afghanistan’s popularly-elected government.)
Moreover, consider the Taliban’s record while in power and while trying to reclaim power: banishing girls from school, ordering Hindus to wear identity labels, destroying ancient Buddhist statues, executing those belonging to opposing sects of Islam, depopulating areas controlled by ethnic minorities, turning soccer stadiums into mass-execution chambers, burning people alive, jailing aid workers, pouring acid on young women and teachers, using children to plant IEDs, making common cause with bin Laden.
How can we make a deal with that? As he canceled a meeting with Taliban officials late last year, Trump himself asked, “What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position?” The answer can be found in the preceding two paragraphs. They haven’t changed, and they won’t.
Trump today, and Obama before him, are reflections of an America that’s not just war-weary, but increasingly world-weary. Yet leadership—especially on matters of national security—sometimes requires more than reflecting the national mood. There are times when a president needs to explain to the American people why they should follow a path they’d rather not take: Jefferson waging war on piracy half-a-world away; Lincoln transforming the Civil War from a struggle merely to preserve the Union into a struggle to abolish slavery; FDR dragging an isolationist America back onto the world stage; Truman arguing for open-ended engagement and global containment of Moscow; Reagan reviving the nation’s commitment to what Truman began; Bush 41 building support for liberating Kuwait; Clinton wading into the Balkans; Bush 43 authorizing the surge.
America and its military have sacrificed much in Afghanistan—18 years; 2,448 dead; 20,516 wounded; more than a trillion dollars. Trump, Obama and other well-meaning observers look upon these numbers and conclude that the costs are just too high—the costs of Afghanistan’s relative stability, the costs of America’s security, the costs of international order, the costs of engagement.
Without question, engagement carries heavy costs. The Cold War cost Americans 104,000 military personnel and $6 trillion. The war on terrorism has claimed 6,900 U.S. personnel and devoured $2 trillion in treasure. Yet we hear little about the costs of disengagement: Nanking, Pearl Harbor and Auschwitz in the 1930s and 1940s; Korea in 1950; Afghanistan in the 1990s; Iraq in 2011. And we often overlook the benefits of engagement. During the Cold War, U.S. engagement preserved free government, rehabilitated Germany and Japan, and transformed Europe from an incubator of war into a partnership of prosperity. During the war on terror, U.S. engagement prevented a second or third 9/11, forced the enemy to expend finite resources on survival, and pushed the battlefront away from our shores.
Trump laments that in Afghanistan, “We’re almost a police force over there.” Perhaps that’s how we should look at Afghanistan. Given what Afghanistan has spawned, it must be policed by someone. The notion that the Taliban are willing or able to play that role is fantasy. “The cost of retaining a few thousand troops in Afghanistan pales in comparison with the price the nation will pay strategically and economically if al Qaeda or ISIS rebuilds a terrorist platform there,” Petraeus warns.
For a reminder of what that price entails, take a look at the Manhattan skyline.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.