All of the news on President Donald Trump’s sudden Syria pullout may actually to be part of a trend. Earlier this week, President Trump directed the Pentagon to withdraw nearly half of the more than 14,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan, according to defense officials. Like the president’s decision on Syria, the planned troop reduction in Afghanistan is underway despite the vehement apposition of his cabinet and advisers on defense.
The Bubble Bursts
The recent order is a major reversal from Trump’s troop surge of last August in which he deployed new weapons systems and thousands more personnel to the country. Beyond just more men and guns, the Trump plan was a real shift in strategy from all previous years of U.S. presence in Afghanistan. There would be a much more aggressive approach to winning in Afghanistan, and a fundamental change to the rules of engagement. No more proximity requirements for strikes against Taliban forces, and U.S. advisers much more involved in operations alongside lower-level Afghan units across the country. As General Lance Bunch, one of the top American officers in Afghanistan, stated in a December Pentagon briefing, “We are able to go after their [Taliban] weapons cache sites, their revenue generation, their C2 [command and control] nodes, all the areas where they thought they were safe and they are no longer so.”
Everyone was hopeful. Skeptic officers were once again optimistic. Revered—and recently departed—Defense chief General Mattis also backed the plan. But alas, as the months rolled on, it became increasingly clear, that the “revolutionary plan” was failing. By the spring of 2018, the territorial reality was such that most of Afghanistan was either under complete Taliban control, or disputed. A province-by-province assessment demonstrated this grim picture—in many provinces the Taliban has become the de facto governmental authority. All the while, the U.S. government continued to paint a rosy picture of the progress being made in Afghanistan. In a 20 May press release, the Department of Defense declared that “breathtaking” progress at rooting out the Taliban has been achieved by the Afghan military. In early May, with the Taliban’s grip over key areas only tightening, a Pentagon public affairs official actually told reporters that the Taliban are “desperate” and are only hitting “soft targets” such as “polling places.”
But unfortunately, keeping one’s head in the sand is at most a short-term strategy.
A House Divided
It seems pretty clear the lack of progress in Afghanistan was a significant—if not the most significant—factor in Trump wanting to pull out. Looked at from a slightly different perspective, Trump’s “America-first, bring-our-troops-home” sentiments were triggered a bit too much by the persistent failures in Afghanistan. These failures aren’t limited to the battlefield. In addition to losses in the field, militant groups have been wreaking havoc on Afghan cities. Days ago, twenty-nine people were killed in a shooting and bombing attack on a government building in Kabul. The target was a multi-story building housing a public welfare department that supports wounded soldiers. According to reports, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive minutes before a wave of armed men entered the building and began gunning down victims. This incident followed the tragic attack against British security contractors in the city last month, resulting in nineteen deaths. That attack in turn was preceded by a roadside bombing that killed three U.S. servicemen in Ghazni.
Despite the bad trends, Trump’s generals and advisers were all still against a drawback on troops. Even after news of the president’s imminent order had already broke, many were still hoping to reverse the decision. According to U.S. media sources, a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that other officials are still trying to change Trump’s mind, and it is unlikely a decision on it will be announced soon.
To be clear, the central point of debate between Trump and the rest of his administration is not whether the fight in Afghanistan can be “won” in the normal sense. Conquering the country by force and subduing the Taliban seems to be a lost cause. Rather, Trump’s team wants U.S. military power in Afghanistan to stay strong for another reason—as leverage for negotiations.
The Diplomacy End
The diplomatic effort to come to terms with the Taliban has been underway for some time. Back in July, President Trump ordered his top diplomats at the State Department to seek direct talks with Taliban leadership. By the middle of October, the Taliban leadership had released a statement confirming that its representatives were in a negotiating process with American diplomats. It could be argued that the diplomacy effort began to take a front seat in the U.S. Afghanistan plan, with the military side existing only as a means to force the Taliban to the table.
Mattis, speaking in August, said as much when he asserted that the U.S. military remains in Afghanistan so that the “Taliban recognizes they can’t win on the battlefield; they must negotiate.” This theme was echoed by Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, who took over as the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan in September. “I naturally feel compelled to try to set the conditions for a political settlement,” Miller said in an interview. “So pressure from that standpoint, yes. I don’t want everyone to think this is forever.”
Talks between the American government and the Taliban have kicked into high gear. Both sides recently completed a “marathon” of negotiations in the United Arab Emirates. Both sides promised to meet again in the Gulf country for another round “to complete the Afghanistan reconciliation process.” There are certainly many issues that still need to be hammered out. Success of these negotiations is far from foregone conclusion. But from a negotiator’s point of view, this is the worst time to alleviate pressure from the Taliban by cutting troop strength in half.
Together with the fragile security situation in the country, giving up leverage on the current peace talks is the reason why pretty much the entire administration has been against a troop withdrawal. This may be the most vital period in determining Afghanistan’s future. It would be good if the U.S. had some strong influence in determining it.