War Stories

Trump’s New Big Lie: Afghanistan

Biden has handled the withdrawal very badly. That doesn’t mean Trump would have done better.

In this file photo taken on November 28, 2019, US President Donald Trump speaks to the troops during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan.
In this file photo taken on November 28, 2019, US President Donald Trump speaks to the troops during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. OLIVIER DOULIERY/Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump is telling lies about how he would have handled the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, opening a new avenue for Trump-dazed Republicans to attack President Joe Biden.

Trump issued the following statement on Thursday, amid the collapse of the Afghan army in the wake of Biden’s pullout:

Had our 2020 Presidential election not been rigged and if I were now president, the world would find that our withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a conditions-based withdrawal. I personally had discussions with top Taliban leaders whereby they understood what they are doing now would not have been acceptable. It would have been a much different and much more successful withdrawal, and the Taliban understood that much better than anyone.

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This is false—a series of unmitigated lies—on every level. His opening reference to the “rigged” election is, of course, the Big Lie, but the other lies are pretty monstrous as well.

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First, the “peace accord” that Trump’s emissaries signed with the Taliban in February 2020, in Doha, imposed only a few conditions—and the Taliban are violating none of them at the moment. The Taliban merely agreed not to allow any “individuals or groups, including al-Qaida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” The accord did not bar the Taliban from fighting Afghan government troops or from capturing Afghan provinces on its own.

Second, Trump’s claim that he had “discussions with top Taliban leaders” is overstated. A few days after the signing of the accord, on the phone, through an interpreter, he had a discussion with a leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was the Taliban’s delegate to the Doha talks. Afterward, Trump said he had a “very good” relationship with Baradar, lauded the Taliban for “killing terrorists…some very bad people,” and said of the war, “They’re looking to get this ended and we’re looking to get this ended.” A statement released by the White House said that Trump “emphasized the need to continue the reduction in violence” and “urged the Taliban to participate in intra-Afghan negotiations.” The statement said nothing about Barader’s reply, if any.

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In other words, there is no evidence that a withdrawal under Trump would have been “much more successful” than it’s going under Biden. Trump’s swift withdrawal of a small contingent of peacekeeping troops from Syria in Oct. 2019, leaving Kurdish allies open to Turkish slaughter, suggests that Trump would have been no more discerning about protecting Afghans. (The Kurds had been instrumental in helping U.S. troops crush ISIS in northern Syria.)

The falsehoods notwithstanding, Trump’s statement will no doubt be parroted by congressional Republicans and conservative pundits in the coming weeks and months. When Biden first announced his withdrawal in April, his critics were nonplussed. Trump, after all, had long called for a pullout; in fact, he initially supported Biden’s decision. Even as the Taliban began routing Afghan security forces and taking over whole provinces earlier this summer, critics remained unsure of how to respond, especially since polls showed a vast majority of Americans agreed with Biden’s move.

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Now, however, the critics have received the word from their leader-in-exile: withdrawal isn’t a bad thing, but withdrawal under Trump would have been “conditions-based”; it would have been “much more successful.” When things worsen in Afghanistan, as they almost certainly will, this will be their mantra for attacking Biden’s foreign policy—and for absolving themselves of complicity.

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None of this is to deny that Biden has handled the situation badly. The latest evidence came on Thursday, when the Pentagon announced it would send 8,000 troops back to Afghanistan to facilitate the evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Kabul—5,000 from bases in the Middle East, 3,000 (an entire combat brigade) from Ft. Hood, Texas. If the withdrawal had been more carefully planned, the evacuation—or at least a substantial drawdown of personnel—would have taken place earlier this summer, before the last few thousand U.S. troops in the country were withdrawn.

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When the withdrawal got underway, U.S. officials were still saying the Afghan security forces could resist the Taliban for another six to 12 months—plenty of time to plan for an orderly transition. It would be interesting to know which intelligence agencies predicted that the Afghan army—and, with it, the government—could hold out for so long. Retired officers I spoke with at the time doubted the Afghan army could last for even a few months without U.S. and NATO close-air support, logistics, intelligence, repair and maintenance crews, medevac and surgical units, and helicopter transport—a view that the Biden administration now accepts.

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The 20-year war in Afghanistan has been one misbegotten adventure after another, from nearly the beginning. The initial missions—rooting out al-Qaida, ousting the Taliban from power, and killing or capturing Osama bin Laden, in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept.
11—were justified. The add-ons—establishing a central government (in a very decentralized country run by warlords), building a civil society, and fostering something like a Western-style democracy—were a pipe dream all along. The vision had a glimmer of hope and possibility early on, in 2003-04, when the U.S. commander, a creative three-star general named David Barno, set up small-scale counterinsurgency projects—recruiting volunteers from corporations and non-profits to train Afghan officials in the rudiments of governance and management, starting programs in economic aid and justice reform to win the hearts and minds of the people. But President George W. Bush scaled back resources, turned his gaze toward Iraq, and by the time attention drifted back to Afghanistan, the effort became all too militarized and all too huge. As money flowed in, corruption soared; the Kabul government never won the trust of the people; the Taliban moved in to fill the vacuums.

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Biden, to his credit, recognized this all along when he was Barack Obama’s vice president. In the National Security Council’s debates of 2009-10, Biden was almost alone in opposing a massive troop surge or a campaign of nation building, arguing instead for a slight troop-increase to train and equip the Afghan army. Obama sided with the surge faction but, 18 months later, saw that Biden had been right. He backpedaled on the surge, abandoned the nation building, scaled back the troop levels to 5,800, and limited their missions to training and supporting the Afghan military while also countering terrorists along the Pakistani border.

Ten years later, entering the White House as president, Biden understandably retained a certain allergy to all matters Afghan. Eager to deal with more urgent issues, domestic and foreign, he sought to get out of the place altogether and to downplay the whole region—again, understandably. There has long been a strong case for leaving Afghanistan. Had Biden kept a small number of troops there, and had the next three or four presidents done so as well, not much would ever have improved. But probably not much would have worsened either. Meanwhile, no American troops have been killed there since February 2020.

Was it necessary to get out so swiftly, so completely, and so thoughtlessly? Biden will likely be haunted by those questions for some time. And now that Trump has made it a partisan issue, however mendaciously, the Republicans will be pressing the questions as hard as they can.

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