Ending the American War in Afghanistan
By Will Solomon
December 1, 2020
On November 17, the Pentagon announced that the Trump Administration would plan to reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan to 2500 by mid-January. The plan has been advertised by the administration as a move consistent with Trump’s promise of ending “forever wars” in the Middle East, as well as a redeployment of resources to more pressing security threats. Critics of Trump’s announcement have argued that such a move would further destabilize the region, undercut ongoing peace talks, and allow the Taliban to continue gaining power in the country.
Rhetorical isolationism has been a Trump hallmark since his campaign for president began in 2015—and it is broadly popular. A poll conducted this past summer showed that approximately 3 in 4 Americans support bringing troops home from overseas. Indeed, it seems clear that Trump’s isolationist rhetoric was integral to his winning the Republican primary; his willingness to lambast Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates for their support for the Iraq War and other wars clearly set him apart on stage, and arguably also helped him against Clinton, who was often viewed as more hawkish then Trump.
But rhetoric aside, Trump’s policies in office have been in many respects contiguous with those of his immediate predecessor—eschewing major troop deployments in favor of air power, drone strikes, and special forces raids. While there have been some troop drawdowns, the defense budget has continued to balloon, and Trump’s presidency has not signaled a drastic shift in American policies overseas.
Trump’s cynicism and erratic choices are impossible to ignore in virtually all his policy decisions. With Biden’s victory and likely inauguration, it seems quite plausible that Trump’s move to drawdown troop levels in Afghanistan—and other Middle Eastern conflict zones—at the presumed end of his presidency is a means to demonstrate that he’s fulfilling a campaign pledge. It also enhances his credibility as he continues to emphasize American isolationism , and quite plausibly, support other Republican candidates for office, and maybe run again himself. The concern that such an abrupt move could be disorderly is legitimate, and the concerns of many over what will happen to a fragile Afghan state—will it be overrun by the Taliban or other fundamentalists? what will happen to gains made in areas like women’s rights?—with a lighter US presence is also legitimate.
That said, the US has now been at War in Afghanistan for nearly 20 years, with little to show for it, and no clear path forward besides maintaining an unsustainable course—a reality well-articulated in this piece from Andrew Bacevich and Adam Weinstein. Much of the country is now controlled by a resurgent Taliban, and newer jihadist groups like the Islamic State have sprung up in different places. The government is weak, heavily reliant on the United States to maintain legitimacy, and inextricably corrupt.
Assuming this drawdown actually occurs and Trump does leave office in January, Biden would be wise not to attempt to restore the status quo in Afghanistan, but to recognize that the strategy governing these wars has failed, and wholly re-approach the Afghan situation. This would mean bringing in new voices, and entirely reevaluating the American strategic position in the Greater Middle East. Given Biden’s decades of hawkishness and present reliance on a coterie of Obama-era advisors, one wonders whether this is the tack he will pursue.
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