U.S. Withdrawal Agreement from Afghanistan: Progress but Less than Meets the Eye

Watching news coverage of the U.S.-Taliban agreement would have the average person believing that an end to the longest war in American history was at hand and that U.S. troops would all be coming home from Afghanistan. And that is the impression that President Donald Trump, who promised to stop “endless wars” and is up for re-election this year, would like to leave.

Make no mistake that the ball has been advanced under the agreement, but that and greater progress could have been made without any agreement at all. The stark fact is that the “graveyard of empires” has again taken its toll and that the United States, like the British and Soviet Empires before it, lost its war in Afghanistan long ago. Yet because of domestic American politics, wars that aren’t going very well usually last well beyond their freshness date—as other U.S. wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq also show. American politicians, who always need to project a tough public image—and President Trump is especially prone to this “strut and flex” affliction—can never seem to honestly utter the simple words, “We lost and we’re coming home.” Instead, Trump said, “If bad things happen, we’ll go back.”

Despite President Trump’s reflexive scorn for all the policies of his predecessor, that scenario would appear to imitate that of Barack Obama’s return to Iraq. Of course, to return, you need to leave, and Trump’s agreement with the Taliban in no way assures total U.S. troop withdrawal will ever happen. Of the approximately 12,000 U.S. forces currently in Afghanistan, about 5,000 will be withdrawn within 135 days. Because Trump escalated the Afghan war again after taking office, this initial withdrawal will leave U.S. troop levels at about the same level they were at the end of the Obama administration (that 8,600 level is the number the U.S. military believes is needed to defend the capital Kabul, “advise” Afghan security forces, and fight against the Islamic State). In the 14 months subsequent to the first U.S. withdrawal, if the Taliban keep international terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda, from launching attacks and negotiate a peace settlement and power-sharing arrangement with the Afghan government, the United States will theoretically pull out the remaining U.S. forces.

The Taliban might meet the first requirement for a total U.S. withdrawal but will likely not meet the second one. Because the Taliban is winning the battle against a shoddy Afghan security force—even after the U.S. government wasted billions of dollars over a 19-year period trying to unsuccessfully train and equip it—the group has an incentive not to give the United States any excuse to come back or even bomb Afghanistan if the Taliban again harbored al Qaeda fighters. However, that same result could have been attained long ago—saving countless lives (more than 3,500 U.S. and allied soldiers have died in almost 19 years)—with no agreement, a unilateral U.S. withdrawal, and the mere U.S. threat to again bomb Afghanistan if terror attacks by any group against the United States originated from Afghan soil. Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was decimated years ago and Barack Obama killed its leader, Osama bin Laden, in 2011. Obama should have then declared victory and left Afghanistan; but he didn’t because his predecessor, George W. Bush, had locked the U.S. into broader fanciful goals, such as defending the Kabul government and democratizing the country.

Even if the Taliban has an incentive to prevent al Qaeda’s attacks originating from Afghan soil—but terrorist attacks can originate from virtually anywhere, for example, the 9/11 attacks originated in Hamburg, Germany—it has few incentives to faithfully negotiate a peace settlement with the weak Afghan government. After all, the Taliban is winning the war, even with existing American forces in the country, and will likely do even better against the poor Afghan security forces as U.S. troops begin exiting, despite a U.S. commitment of continuing support for the Afghan military. That Taliban leaders have refused to meet even with an informal Afghan negotiating team is a bad sign. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, angry at being excluded from the U.S.-Taliban negotiations, recently said he had little confidence that the intra-Afghan negotiations would go anywhere.

This leaves the fate of the remaining 8,600 U.S. troops in a very murky state. Therefore, the long-anticipated total U.S. withdrawal could likely be postponed, maybe indefinitely. Thus, despite the president’s pledge of terminating “endless wars,” the seemingly perpetual and costly (2,400 U.S. lives and $2 trillion) American quagmire in Afghanistan could very well drag on.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include War and the Rogue Presidency, Eleven Presidents, The Empire Has No Clothes, Recarving Rushmore, and No War for Oil.
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