Was the drawdown leak from late in the week just an appetizer? A plan percolating in the Trump administration to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan is only the first step in Donald Trump’s plans for the war, according to NBC News. Not only does Trump want to end the war before the election, but he wanted to pull the plug on the US embassy compound in Kabul until war planners agreed to cut back its staffing:
President Donald Trump has told his advisers that he wants to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the November 2020 presidential election, according to five current and former administration and military officials.
The president’s advisers are now scrambling to meet his election-year deadline, which has exacerbated tensions between officials at the Pentagon and the State Department over the timing of withdrawal and whether it should be completed, the officials said. …
Last December Trump threatened not only to immediately withdraw all troops from Afghanistan but also to shut down the U.S. embassy in Kabul, complaining to aides that it is too large and expensive, according to officials. The president’s threat to close the U.S. embassy — which has not been previously reported — so alarmed administration and military officials that they quickly offered him a plan to move up the timing of efforts to scale back the size of the embassy staff, officials said.
“He was fed up with hearing that the U.S. was not winning there,” one former U.S. defense official said. “It was no secret he wanted out, but deciding to pull out of the embassy, too, was a shock.”
If NBC’s sources are correct, Trump had a rough Christmas holiday. At the time, Trump unilaterally declared his intent to withdraw from Syria, a decision that angered then-Defense Secretary James Mattis so much that he resigned, a departure Trump made almost immediate. Trump ended up reversing himself on a full Syrian withdrawal, but Mattis’ frustration might have been broader than just the fight with ISIS. At the same time, Trump ordered the manpower in Afghanistan cut in half and a full withdrawal for sometime in 2019, which his advisors successfully lobbied to have rescinded.
Nevertheless, the State Department began withdrawing staff from the Kabul embassy. By next month, it’s expected to be half of what it was in December. That’s not a good sign for the Afghan government that relies on American military power to keep itself in any kind of power, nor on the Afghan army that relies on US logistics, training, materiel, and to a large extent leadership as well.
It’s no secret that Trump is deeply skeptical about nation-building, and Afghanistan is no sterling example of the theory. Trump hinted broadly that he would bring the war to an end in his first term, and most recently said that he wouldn’t kill “ten million people” in the country just to notch a W on the way out. However, Barack Obama was in much the same political position in Iraq, and Republicans savaged him for his abrupt withdrawal a year before his 2012 re-election campaign. It also came back to haunt him, as the vacuum left by the US withdrawal allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to metastasize into ISIS, thanks in large part to the Sunni tribal leaders we betrayed in abandoning them to Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-domination government. We ended up having to fight another war in Iraq and Syria to deal with the consequences of Obama’s decision and the horrific-but-brief “caliphate” it enabled.
The same risks exist in Afghanistan — including ISIS — but none of the upsides do. Iraq had been a modern country with infrastructure, education, and at least some semblance of an ability to coordinate past strictly tribal concerns. It also has strategic value in containing Iran, which is one reason why the US spent the 1980s cuddling up to Saddam Hussein in a bout of realpolitik, the limitations of which Hussein was too stupid to comprehend. Afghanistan in the post-Soviet era has little strategic value, nowhere near enough infrastructure for coordinated governance, and has been in the middle of a tribal civil war for the last thirty years, and really for decades or more beyond that.
The US might prevail if we imposed our own will for the next 50 to 100 years and built the infrastructure of a modern nation in that time. It would be nation-building at its most literal. The electorate would have no stomach for that kind of occupation at any length, let alone the two or three lifetimes it would take to maybe succeed in eclipsing the tribal and religious divides in Afghanistan. The costs, both literal and political, far exceed the strategic value. All we really need is the ability to ensure that transnational terror networks cannot operate well in the vacuum, and we have other means than occupation to deal with that — if we have the will to use them.
The trick is to get out while giving the Afghans their best chance for a lasting peace, even if that might not be much of a chance. A true settlement of the Afghan tribal civil war would leave very little room for al-Qaeda or ISIS to operate, plus it would allow the West to invest in building infrastructure safely, providing more stability. Keying withdrawal to a US election suggests a much different kind of calculation, one that was rightly criticized eight years ago and is just as bad today. So too are sending signals of a unilateral bug-out that undermine whatever negotiating position we have at the moment. But still, we will eventually have to leave Afghanistan to the Afghans, and the sooner we realize that the better off we will be.