War Stories

The U.S. Should Withdraw From Afghanistan, but Not Like This

Trump’s rash decision will only deepen the damage and disillusionment caused by America’s longest war.

A U.S. soldier at Kandahar Air Field, with armored vehicles in the background.
A U.S. soldier stands guard at Kandahar Air Field on January 23.
Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

The joke going around is that, with the troops coming home from Afghanistan and Syria, President Donald Trump won’t have to visit any war zones, a fear he’s avoided facing in his first two years in office. But what about those left behind, what about the fate of the region, what about long-term U.S. interests? Clearly Trump doesn’t care about anybody else, or even about his own country’s interests after his term is over—and that’s a huge part of this tragedy in the making.

Still, Trump’s instincts for withdrawing—pulling out all 2,000 troops in Syria and half of the 14,000 in Afghanistan—are understandable. Syria is the kind of messy game of multidimensional chess (a hodgepodge of interlocking wars—sectarian, civil, regional, big-power proxy) that we’ve never been good at fighting, even under more competent leadership. The war in Afghanistan has been going on for 17 years, with victory—however defined—no closer than ever.

Trump was all set to get out of Afghanistan until August 2017, when Secretary of Defense James Mattis and then–national security adviser H.R. McMaster convinced him not only to stay, but to send 5,000 more troops into the fray. McMaster’s gambit was to show him a circa 1970s photo of young women in Kabul wearing miniskirts, as if to prove that the place once was—and, by implication, could again be—a “normal” country. Mattis’ method was to lay out a “new strategy” that could “win” the war, even though in fact it was just a slight intensification of old strategies—more bombing, coupled with more active diplomacy—and “win” remained a murky concept.

The regrettable thing about Trump’s timing now is that his announcement—made, as was his early-morning tweet about Syria, with no consultation with aides or allies—comes as the diplomatic side of the strategy finally seems close to bearing fruit. Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born diplomat who serves as the administration’s emissary to Afghanistan (and who was once posted there as U.S. ambassador), was making considerable progress toward bringing the Taliban to the peace table—even toward luring them to sit down with the Kabul government (though they haven’t agreed to do so just yet).

A crucial ingredient in any enduring peace deal must be the withdrawal of U.S. troops—not all at once, and not unconditionally, rather hinging on some political settlement. But Trump’s sudden move to cut the troop levels by half, with no concessions from the Taliban or anyone else, seriously erodes Khalilzad’s leverage.

This unilateral move might not be so disastrous; it might even spur the peace talks if Khalilzad or some U.S. official played it as a “confidence-building measure” to entice further concessions from the Taliban. But this game is likely to lack credibility, in the context of Trump’s hands-thrown-up pullout from Syria; his clear insouciance about throwing the Kurds under the Turkish tank treads; and the resignation-in-protest of Mattis, the last senior official standing who would have actively resisted this move.

Even most of those who favor a U.S. withdrawal, who think the war has gone on long enough and will never yield a satisfactory result (and I include myself in that group), believe that a total pullout would spark disaster—anarchy, civil war, the return of a terrorist regime, the strengthening of the local branch of ISIS–in a region of nuclear powers and great instability.

Trump hasn’t decided to pull out all of the troops, not yet anyway, just 7,000 of them—a couple thousand more than the number he added to the deployment last year. So 7,000 U.S. troops will remain—about 1,400 fewer than President Barack Obama left in place at the end of his administration. Those troops were assigned two main missions: fighting terrorists and assisting (but not fighting on the ground alongside) the Afghan army. The more ambitious mission of counterinsurgency, which included reforming the Afghan government and its ability to provide essential services, was largely abandoned. (Obama tried it for 18 months, then dropped it after concluding it wasn’t working.)

What will the 7,000 remaining troops do? Trump is leaving that up to the Defense Department, instructing officials only to come up with some way to bring down the numbers. Which region of the country the departing troops should come from, what tasks will be compromised or ended—Trump doesn’t really care. He just wants to please his “base,” honor a campaign pledge, and placate his own instincts to get out of a long, futile war.

Again, in this one instance, his basic instinct isn’t bad. But in matters of war and peace especially, instincts should be coupled to an awareness of consequences and a strategic sense of how to use one’s last shred of power to achieve some of one’s goals or, at least, to minimize the losses. Trump doesn’t care about any of that either; nor does he know, or care, what the goals of this war ever were. Of course, he is hardly alone in that deficiency: Except for the war’s initial, and worthy, aim—crushing al-Qaida and ousting the Taliban regime, which had been hosting Osama Bin Laden and his militiamen—no one ever devised or pursued a goal that was consistent or realistic.

This has been America’s longest war and its most bewildering. Trump is trying to finish it, but in a way that will only deepen the damage and disillusionment.