Op-Ed: Trump was right to bring troops home from Afghanistan. Biden should finish the job
When President Trump took office in 2017, the war in Afghanistan was 16 years old. The original mission, meant to punish the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and their Taliban enablers, was long since completed, but the Taliban held or contested 45% of Afghan territory. There were about 8,400 U.S. forces on the ground, far below the peak of 100,000 in 2010 (excluding contractors, who often equal or exceed the military presence proper). That deployment had been led by 17 commanders — turnover is high in the “graveyard of empires.”
Today, the war in Afghanistan is approaching 20 years old. U.S. taxpayers have spent nearly a trillion dollars on it (more if you count long-term costs like interest on debt and military healthcare). The Taliban holds or contests about 65% of Afghan territory. At summer’s end, there were about 8,600 U.S. forces on the ground, a figure that is supposed to drop to 2,500 by Inauguration Day. Some of those soldiers were born after the 9/11 attacks happened. Some are fighting the same war their fathers fought. When the war’s 17th commander left in 2018, he declared it “time for this war in Afghanistan to end.”
And still it continues. In failing to finish the war in Afghanistan, Trump has broken a major campaign promise, one he touted throughout his presidency as evidence of his distinction from the Washington establishment.
With Trump’s departure from the White House imminent — and President-elect Joe Biden equally insistent that he will end this intervention — a review of Trump’s record in this conflict is in order. What did he get right? And what can Biden do better to finally conclude our country’s longest war?
Trump’s record of tangible diplomatic accomplishments is limited, and his administration has tended toward heavy-handed, ineffective negotiating tactics, such as applying so-called maximum pressure on Iran. But Trump deserves credit for his occasional willingness to break the Washington habit of treating diplomacy as a reward for good behavior. Afghanistan was one of those times.
Trump’s decision to open peace talks with the Taliban and the Afghan government was a smart and pragmatic move. It acknowledged the reality that the Taliban won’t be eradicated in Afghanistan by American military means, and that intra-Afghan talks are vital if Afghanistan is ever to achieve a livable stability, let alone peace.
Trump also deserves credit for his reduction — limited though it is — of the U.S. ground presence. Although Trump increased the number of troops in Afghanistan in his first few years in office, he never attempted a large-scale, Obama-style surge, and he set a date for full American military departure in 2021. This is some progress, as is Trump’s open recognition that exiting an unwinnable 19-year war is not precipitous.
Starting in January, Biden can improve on Trump’s record. Instead of maintaining a small U.S. contingent in Afghanistan indefinitely, as the president-elect has said he plans to do, Biden should meet or hasten Trump’s late spring 2021 exit deadline. This would not please many elected officials, but it would be popular with the majority of Americans, and it could be touted as a show of unity with Trump followers.
Biden should not follow the Trump plan when it comes to shifting resources to an expanded air war as the U.S. ground presence shrinks. During the Trump administration, the U.S. has dropped record numbers of bombs and other ordnance on Afghanistan. Civilian casualties have predictably spiked, and anti-U.S. radicalization is on the rise as a result.
Picking up negotiations where the Trump team left off, the Biden administration should take a more realistic approach to diplomacy. That means declining to condition our strategically necessary departure on the whims of the Taliban.
Diplomacy in Afghanistan must be given time to proceed at the slow and often halting pace it requires without another year or 10 of American military intervention. Insisting that a U.S. presence is required until a comprehensive treaty is signed and consistently respected will prolong the fighting for years to come. The same is true of other “conditions-based” withdrawal plans often touted in Washington — there will always be another militant group to suppress, another injustice to address. “Conditions-based” withdrawal means no withdrawal at all.
Biden seems to understand the trap set when we tie troops to unrealistic and endlessly malleable goals, and to grasp that a commitment of U.S. military force must have limits. “There’s a thousand places [our military] could go to deal with injustice,” he said in a February interview. “The question is,” Biden continued, “is America’s vital self-interest … or the vital self-interest of one of our allies at stake?... The responsibility I have is to protect America’s national self-interest and not put our women and men in harm’s way to try to solve every single problem in the world by use of force.”
Following this narrower and more achievable concept of the United States’ role would have improved Trump’s record in Afghanistan. Biden would do well to stick to it.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a contributing editor at the Week and a columnist at Christianity Today.
9:46 a.m. Dec. 29, 2020: An earlier version of this piece misidentified the commander of the Afghanistan war who in 2018 said it was time for the war to end. It was the outgoing 17th commander, not the 18th commander.
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