The president, facing what is likely to be a tough re-election campaign, is determined to withdraw U.S. troops and end the nation’s “forever war.” Despite his earlier promises that conditions on the ground will determine the policy, the political clock is clearly driving decision-making in the White House. Furling the American flag, claiming victory, and bringing the troops home will send a powerful election-season message.
At least President Barack Obama thought so when he pulled U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011. As President Donald Trump eyes the exits in Afghanistan, it’s worth remembering the cautionary tale of our recent history in Iraq.
Certainly President Trump has made no secret of his desire to withdraw before next November. As August ended, Trump said he plans to bring home about 5,400 of the 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan. Speaking to Fox News Radio, the president said, “We’re going down to 8,600 and then we make a determination from there as to what happens…we’re bringing it down.”
The president spoke the day after Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that “I think it’s premature, I’m not using the ‘withdraw’ word right now,” adding that “we’re going to make sure…that Afghanistan’s not a sanctuary.”
Related: The Missing Debate about Afghanistan
A similar disconnect between the White House and the U.S. military colored discussions of a potential withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. The Obama White House, eager to end an unpopular war in Iraq as he ran for re-election, had little appetite for finalizing a Status of Forces Agreement that would have allowed for a continued U.S. troop presence beyond 2011. U.S. military leaders thought at the time that a total withdrawal was premature, unnecessarily risking the hard-won gains of years of fighting and nation-building.
Progress had been made in Iraq at great cost, but the situation was far from stable. The Iraqi government was showing its sectarian instincts, the training and equipping of Iraqi Security Forces was incomplete, and a sectarian civil war was raging next door in Syria. Leaving Iraq under those conditions created a vacuum that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) quickly filled. To his great chagrin, President Obama was forced less than three years later to send U.S. troops back to Iraq under much less favorable conditions to keep the country from being overrun by the Islamist extremists of ISIS.
There are important lessons to be drawn from that debacle. First and foremost, it is perilous to fight a conflict on a political timetable. In retrospect, it’s also clear that the U.S. tutelage of the Iraqi Security Forces helped keep at bay the corrupting influences of cronyism, nepotism, and sectarianism. Once free of such U.S. pressure, Maliki indulged his sectarian instincts by placing incompetent loyalists throughout the Iraqi military command. When ISIS launched its offensive juggernaut in the summer of 2014, capturing nearly a third of Syria and Iraq and threatening Baghdad, the Iraqi Security Forces were either overrun or collapsed from the sheer incompetence, and in some cases treachery, of their chain-of-command.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration is adopting a similar blueprint for Afghanistan. Kabul similarly suffers from a weak central government. The Afghan National Security Forces are still heavily dependent on U.S. enablers. There is an ascendant terrorist insurgency mounted by the Islamist extremists not only of the Taliban, but also of a rising ISIS-Khorasan. And once again it is not conditions on the ground that are driving U.S. troop withdrawals, but rather a political agenda in the White House.
The Iraq experience strongly suggests that under such conditions, a premature U.S. troop withdrawal will create a power vacuum that the Taliban and fellow travelers in the global jihadist movement will be only too happy to fill, undermining the progress achieved over nearly two decades.
Even if America’s strategic objectives are limited to preventing the country from once again becoming the “Harvard University of Terrorism,” sufficient Special Operations, intelligence, and support forces will need to remain to conduct counterterrorism operations, backed by U.S. airpower and ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capabilities. The 8,600 U.S. troops that President Trump says will remain in Afghanistan for the time being may not even be sufficient for that mission, given the rogue’s gallery of extremists groups that operate in the country, including the Haqqani network, Al Qaeda, ISIS and various Taliban factions.
There is certainly an argument to be made that after nearly two decades of America’s “longest war,” the situation in Afghanistan is simply hopeless. There’s little doubt that progress there is even further behind than Iraq circa 2011. Afghanistan lacks the latter’s oil revenue, literate and educated populace and modern infrastructure. There is also a high level of corruption and thus weakness in Afghan institutions across the board. Despite repeated U.S. efforts to end Pakistani support and sanctuary for the Taliban, the Pakistani intelligence services continue to use Taliban factions to exert influence on their weaker neighbor.
There has also been inarguable progress in Afghanistan. Despite irregularities, elections actually matter in the country. According to the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education over nine million children are currently enrolled in school, including 3.5 million girls and young women who were kept behind the veil and confined at home by the Taliban. Afghan soldiers and police continue to fight and die to prevent their nation falling once again into the Taliban’s totalitarian grasp, to the tune of more than 28,000 killed in action since 2015, according to the government.
The American public and body politic are understandably weary of the Afghan War. This week’s news that two NATO service members, including an American, were killed in a suicide bombing in Kabul tragically underscores the costs the United States and our allies continue to pay to keep that country from once again becoming a sanctuary for violent extremists. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed that attack for the cancellation of the Camp David summit.
After that collapse, it’s not clear when the Trump administration will be able to reconstitute peace talks or craft the face-saving “peace deal” it so eagerly wants before next year’s election. We should at least be honest in recognizing that the deal, as currently constructed, will most likely surrender our Afghan allies to the tender mercies of the Taliban and like-minded Islamist extremists. We’ve tried that before in Iraq and the lesson is clear: just because one side quits fighting, it doesn’t mean the war ends.