President Donald Trump has never held back when slamming Barack Obama on mistakes made in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet, as the White House prepares to announce a U.S. deal with the Taliban, Trump seems poised to mimic his predecessor. He is eager to pull the remaining 14,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by November 2020 to please his base before U.S. elections.
This means U.S. forces will be gone before we know whether the Taliban will keep their pledge to negotiate an intra-Afghan peace with elected Afghan officials – or push to re-establish an Islamic Emirate (and end rights for women). The latter course will produce a renewed civil war and an opening for ISIS 2.0 amid the chaos.
Shades of Obama, who pulled all remaining troops out of Iraq in 2011, providing pre-conditions for the Islamic State invasion of northern Iraq in 2015. “We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq,” Trump insisted in a speech in August 2017.
So why would he do that now?
The superficial answer is obvious. The president is frustrated that we aren’t winning.
“We’ve been there for 19 years. It’s ridiculous. We are not fighting to win,” he complained in July, suggesting he could have won in a week, but would have had to “kill 10 million people.” Presumably by bombing the country back to the stone age.
To be fair, most Americans are also frustrated at “forever wars” with no victory or obvious conclusion. Yet the time has come for Americans to reconsider whether it is smarter and cheaper to keep a small residual force in Afghanistan to prevent losing.
“If the Taliban know there’s a timeline by the end of 2020, which isn’t conditional on an agreement first being reached and implemented, it will never take place,” says James Dobbins, a U.S. diplomat who served as U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan in 2013-2014. He and several former U.S. ambassadors to Afghanistan just produced a trenchant report for the Atlantic Council titled, “U.S.-Taliban negotiations: How to Avoid Rushing to Failure.”
In other words, despite the length of U.S. involvement, it is worth maintaining a longer presence as leverage to test whether the Taliban are serious. Or to prevent a Taliban takeover of Kabul in case negotiations fail.
After all, it would be far more costly to return to Afghanistan after a likely ISIS rebirth.
To understand how costly, it’s useful to return to what happened in Iraq in 2011, the example Trump cited in 2017.
In 2011, the Obama administration sought to retain a minimal presence in Iraq, after drawing down most U.S. troops – the residual number varied from around 10,000 to as low as 3,500.
According to then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in his memoir, “Worthy Fights,” “It was clear to me – and many others – that withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability then barely holding Iraq together.”
However, the Obama administration was internally divided, and Panetta says it didn’t push hard enough. The White House insisted that any agreement for a residual force had to be approved by the Iraqi parliament. This proved impossible.
After the last U.S. troops left, U.S. attention and intelligence waned when it came to Iraq. The Baghdad government politicized the Iraqi army command; Iraqi forces in Mosul collapsed when ISIS invaded in 2015.
Eventually, Washington had to send 6,000 U.S. troops back to Iraq to spearhead the brutal campaign to wipe out the Islamic State.
Yet, as I was told (off the record) by senior Iraqi officials then serving, there was another route by which the Obama team could have secured Iraqi approval, and probably prevented the ISIS resurgence. That approval could have been obtained under terms of a strategic framework accord negotiated by the George W. Bush administration.
That is the very basis under which around 5,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq now, advising and training Iraqi forces. The lesson of this sad Iraq misadventure is that it’s better to invest in not losing than to stage a premature retreat.
A bit of Afghan history is also useful to understand the risks of leaving. When the Soviets pulled out out of Afghanistan in 1989, the country collapsed into civil war by the early 1990s, especially when Moscow stopped providing military and economic aid to the government.
Out of that chaos emerged a Taliban emirate that permitted al-Qaida to base and train on its soil.
The current Taliban leadership pledges not to permit any future al-Qaida presence. But once U.S. troops leave, how can they be trusted? Hardline Taliban who prefer to keep on fighting are likely to join the local variant of ISIS or new jihadi groups.
Any intra-Afghan accord is unlikely to be negotiated by the end of 2020. So that leaves Trump with a choice. He can rush to failure, or he can try some strategic long-term thinking. Unfortunately, his 2017 speech was written when James Mattis was defense secretary and H.R. McMaster his national security adviser.
These days he appears to make such crucial decisions all alone.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA 19101, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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