President Trump wants to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan before Election Day, the New York Times reported Tuesday, citing five unnamed officials familiar with the internal administration debate. Pentagon officials are complying with the White House demand for a pre-November exit plan, the Times story says, but they’re also drawing up longer timelines in hope of convincing Trump to further delay ending the longest war in American history.
Two things can be true of this at once: First, Trump’s election-linked timeline is self-serving and little connected to considerations of security or principle. The president has never brought his actual foreign policy in line with the best of his foreign-policy rhetoric, namely his diatribes against nationbuilding and critique of “endless wars.” That’s because there’s no underlying commitment to realism, restraint, or peace, even if Trump’s vocabulary occasionally suggests otherwise. His understanding is too shallow, his attention span too brief, and his top advisers too hawkish for his administration to deliver the foreign-policy reform he promised.
But second, leaving Afghanistan before Election Day is an excellent idea. A relatively short timeline will help guarantee the orderly approach Pentagon leaders want. The best way to avoid derailment by Trump’s short-notice changeability is to lock onto this opportunity to plan and execute a responsible exit before the president alters his decision yet again. Hold him to this idea. Seize this moment to end a futile, counterproductive, and inhumane intervention that should have ended long ago.
The three primary arguments against leaving Afghanistan now that appear in the Times piece are typical of the genre: little interested in learning the lessons of the past two decades or considering the limits of U.S. military capability.
One claim is that “a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan would effectively doom the peace deal reached this year with the Taliban.” A slower drawdown, the Times’ sources say, could shore up the deal and “give the Taliban an incentive to reduce attacks.” That prediction might prove true, but it equally might not: The three months since the deal was reached have not been markedly more peaceful, as the same sources note in this very report. More important, though, is the fact that the deal itself is not the goal here. It is a means to an end, and that end is complete and permanent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Prolonging a war in the name of diplomacy designed to conclude it is utterly backwards. Our role in this war must end regardless of the status of the deal with the Taliban.
The second argument is that Afghanistan is not “fixed” yet: “The debate [about withdrawal within the administration] also highlights the mounting difficulty facing the February agreement” with the Taliban, the Times reports. “Political strife, the novel coronavirus, and bloody Taliban attacks have almost derailed what little progress has been made since the deal’s signing.” This objection relies on the deeply mistaken assumption that there is some way further U.S. military intervention can pacify Afghan politics or control the Taliban. It cannot, as the last 19 years have demonstrated. It could not do it with more than 100,000 American boots on the ground, and it cannot do it with fewer than 10,000. A sixth surge, a 19th commander, yet another strategy—none of it will make a difference. U.S. military meddling is not the solution to Afghanistan’s strife. We are not helping.
The third argument for a delayed departure may be the most indefensible: That if Trump can be held off now, he or his successor might be sold on a longer war later. “Some American officials also say the political pressure to remove the troops could be different in a second term,” the Times says. “And if Mr. Trump is defeated, a new president may want to reassess whether a continued American troop presence is necessary.” This is the mirror image of Trump’s impulse to withdraw, a commitment to a failed status quo as obstinate and irrational as his commitment to contrarianism.
The difference, though, is Trump has managed to hit upon a good idea with this pre-election withdrawal scheme. His political interests in this case align with the country’s interests. It’s not a decision based in coherent grand strategy, but it is welcome nonetheless. Ending the war in Afghanistan is long overdue. If Trump is willing to end it now, let’s take him up on the offer.