President Donald Trump’s order to pull out half the U.S. troops in Afghanistan, on the eve of his departure, has officials and analysts mystified—including many who agree with him that it’s time, after 18 years, to end our longest war.
The biggest puzzle is that, in peace talks early this year with Afghan and Taliban leaders, Trump’s own negotiating team agreed to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 2021, if the Taliban reaches a cease-fire with the Kabul government and turns its fire against al-Qaida.
It’s a toss-up whether the Taliban will make good on its side of this bargain; but it’s a sure bet they won’t, now that Trump has said we’re getting out of there, regardless of conditions on the ground.
Keep in mind: These peace talks aren’t some hangover from the Obama administration; they are a Trump creation, led by negotiators that Trump chose. Their positions were worked out jointly with the Kabul government and with NATO allies, who still have troops in Afghanistan. All of them are now betrayed. Trump doesn’t care.
Trump says he’s honoring a campaign pledge to get out of the forever wars. But he’s not doing that. His initial impulse was to pull out all of the remaining 4,500 U.S. troops as well as the 3,000 in Iraq. After consulting with advisers, the order was changed so that a total of 2,500 troops would remain in both countries. Then that was changed so that 2,500 would be left in Afghanistan and 2,500 in Iraq. This is much less of a big deal.
But coupled with what initially was the high-profile announcement of a total pullout, even a slighter withdrawal may tempt the Taliban (and other hostile forces) to test the U.S. commitment—which, in effect, Trump has described, in words and deeds, as paltry.
President Barack Obama had promised to get out of Afghanistan by the end of his term. But in September 2015, he announced that 5,500 troops—out of the 90,000 deployed at the war’s peak—would remain, not for “victory” or “nation-building” (as was the original strategy) but simply to continue training the Afghan army and conducting counterterrorism operations. The new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, had asked Obama not to withdraw all U.S. forces and signed a security agreement giving these troops legal protections—an accord that his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, had refused to consider. Meanwhile, terrorist groups were flourishing across the Pakistani border. None of Obama’s advisers opposed sustaining counterterrorism ops from bases in the region; here was Ghani, offering three existing bases. An interagency study, led by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concluded that the mission could be performed with 5,500 troops. And so Obama made the decision.
Today, terrorist groups are still flourishing across the Pakistani border, and sometimes on the Afghan side too. It is debatable whether the United States has an interest in combating these groups in this region. But Trump chose not to have this debate. He just decided compulsively to pull out the troops while he still had the power to do so—then didn’t quite do that anyway.
Barnett Rubin, director of the Afghanistan Regional Project at New York University and a former State Department official, has another reason for the U.S. to remain at least somewhat involved in the country. “Afghanistan is no longer an isolated backwater,” he said. Many countries have an interest in a political settlement that promotes stability and staves off terrorism. These include Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Iran—whose interests, at least in this realm, converge with ours, at a time when our interests conflict in so many other realms. Cooperating on an Afghan political settlement could be a vehicle for reviving cooperation—or simply cordial diplomatic relations—on broader fronts, where cooperation is necessary for success.
In any case, it is bad form, as the British might put it, for an outgoing president to make such a major decision—one that might be hard to reverse—just two months before his successor takes office. Trump wouldn’t be the first to behave in this manner. As historian Timothy Naftali has noted, President Dwight Eisenhower stepped up regime-change operations in Latin America, including a plan to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro, during his lame-duck period. The incoming president, John F. Kennedy—who, as it happened, wasn’t opposed to these plans in principle—paid the penalty when they flopped on his watch.
For the most part, though, presidents have been reluctant to saddle their successors with big decisions that might affect their own policies. Toward the end of his second term, Obama wanted to shut down one of the nation’s three ICBM bases, dismantling 150 of our 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles—but when he learned the job couldn’t be done by the time he left office, he backed off. In the transition to Obama’s presidency, George W. Bush refrained from making decisions on precisely how to withdraw troops from Iraq, to avoid boxing in his successor.
As vice president, Joe Biden strenuously opposed the troop surge in Afghanistan that Obama ordered in late 2009, preferring a modest training-and-counterterrorism mission (“CT-Plus,” it was called), to which Obama did scale back two years later. It is not clear what President-elect Biden wants to do in Afghanistan now. The ins and outs of that war and that country certainly don’t rank high on his list of priorities. But fighting terrorism must grab the attention of any American president. Relations with Russia and China are also a matter of keen interest. With so little time left in his term, Trump should let Biden and his team decide whether a high-profile pullout from Afghanistan is the best way to serve U.S. interests. Then again, serving U.S. interests has never been what Trump’s presidency is about.