Regardless of the outcome of U.S.-Taliban talks, Trump should pull troops from Afghanistan

By Daniel DePetris

From the very moment the Pakistan-based Taliban leadership organized a lethal insurgency against the Afghan government, there has been a realization among scholars of the region that Afghanistan’s war could not be settled militarily. The Afghan security forces were too overstretched, unprofessional, and incapable to patrol every corner of Afghanistan. The Taliban were also too few in number and too unpopular to sweep into Kabul like they did in 1996.  Afghanistan would be mired in a circular military stalemate regardless of how much firepower, soldiers, and money (neary $1 trillion) the United States invested otherwise. 

U.S. officials have learned the hard way how implausible and futile it was to transplant a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan—one of the poorest, most violent, ungovernable, and corrupt countries on the planet. Ultimately, a political resolution to the war in Afghanistan—if such a resolution exists at all—should be hammered out by the Afghans themselves.

Former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration’s special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, has spent six straight days with Taliban negotiators trying to coax the movement into political talks with the Afghan government. To Khalilzad’s enormous credit, discussions about a peace settlement have advanced faster than anyone has. If news reports are indeed accurate, the U.S. and the Taliban are nearing an agreement in which U.S. and NATO troops would withdraw from Afghanistan over 18-months, a period in which a ceasefire would be established and prisoners would be exchanged. The Taliban, in turn, would pledge an assurance that foreign terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State would not be permitted to use Afghanistan as a base for external attacks. 

A lot can go wrong, both in the negotiating room and on the battlefield, but the negotiations are an indication that Washington is finally coming around to a critical point: the security of the American people can be achieved without propping up the Afghan army and government in perpetuity. An indefinite, decades-long U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan at a cost of $45 billion a year is not required to defend the homeland from transnational terrorism.

In 2002, U.S. policy in Afghanistan transitioned from being focused on the central objective of annihilating al Qaeda to the more ‘pie-in-the-sky’ aspiration of building an Afghan state from scratch. The switch from counterterrorism to nation-building would prove to be an astronomical blunder—a wrong-turn that has led three American presidents into the dense weeds of Afghanistan’s centuries-long ethnic, tribal, and sub-tribal fissures.

Tens of billions of American taxpayer dollars were earmarked to build, train, and maintain a professional and incorruptible Afghan army which has turned out to be neither professional nor corrupt-free. Tens of billions more were expended on a variety of government and development programs in the hope that the Afghan people would be persuaded of their politicians’ good intentions. When the Taliban insurgency blossomed in 2009, U.S. soldiers were ordered by their superiors to route them out of small villages and remote mountainous outposts in a bold but hubristic attempt to preserve the system Washington devoted years to nurturing. A mission that started in October 2001 as one of justifiable revenge—hitting the group that attacked the United States on 9/11— morphed into a social science experiment in the middle of Central Asia.

This was never what U.S. operations in Afghanistan were supposed to be about.

America’s foray into Afghanistan was meant to avenge the deaths of nearly 3,000 people who died on 9/11 and wiping out Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist infrastructure and support base. The U.S. in fact, accomplished that mission in the first three months of the conflict. Unfortunately, instead of claiming victory and going home, leaders in Washington overreached and set new goals that were so absurdly aspirational that they were unattainable. 

The American people know a losing investment when they see it.  Fifty-seven percent of Americans and 69 percent of veterans would support a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan if President Donald Trump were to order it.  A 49 percent plurality of Americans polled by the Pew Research Center in October 2018 have said that the U.S. has mostly failed in achieving its goals in Afghanistan—a finding that strongly suggests that the goals the U.S. was trying to achieve were out of reach and entirely unnecessary to begin with. 

After 17 years and three consecutive U.S. administrations later, it is long past time for Washington’s foreign policy establishment to arrive at the same conclusion as the people they purportedly represent.

Ideally, the U.S., Afghan government, and Taliban will conclude the current peace talks with a signed peace declaration that ends the war for good. But in the event the best-case scenario doesn’t come to pass and the negotiations fall apart, President Trump should not think twice about extricating the United States anyway. Afghans are the only ones who can resolve the list of problems in their country. 

Those who argue that a U.S. withdrawal will provide al Qaeda with room to strike the homeland in another attack severely underestimate the big lesson the Taliban has learned throughout this entire affair: if you connive or cooperate in any way with terrorists who seek to hit the American people, you are signing your own death warrant. The United States will not only strike back, but will strike back a hundred times harder.

 We should hope Ambassador Khalilzad succeeds as he makes the rounds in regional capitals and engages in long negotiating sessions with the Taliban. But even if he doesn’t, America’s involvement in the Afghan war should come to an end.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on January 29, 2019. Read more HERE.