Will the US withdraw from Afghanistan?
In recent days, Afghanistan has experienced some hopeful moments. A three-day Taliban ceasefire to coincide with the Eid holiday resulted in an unprecedented respite from a war that has ravaged the nation for nearly 17 years. Afghans around the country staged rallies calling for a more permanent peace, and Kabul asked the Taliban to extend its ceasefire. Unfortunately, the insurgents chose to return to the battlefield and have now resumed their attacks on Afghan forces.
Meanwhile, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and, even more significantly, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have issued statements indicating that foreign forces can be a topic of negotiation in any talks with the Taliban. This is a huge development. For years, the Taliban has insisted that it will not lay down its arms until US troops stop fighting and leave the country.
So does this mean that Washington is now open to discussing a troop pullout with the Taliban in order to bring America’s longest-ever foreign war to a close? The answer is that a pullout is a very real and understandable possibility — not now, but further down the road. However, a withdrawal, regardless of when it may happen, would pose major risks for regional stability and US interests.
In reality, for nearly a decade, the US government has not been comfortable staying in Afghanistan. In 2009, President Barack Obama made the extraordinary decision to announce an eventual phased troop withdrawal from Afghanistan at the very moment he called for a surge. By the end of 2014, the US had ended its combat role in Afghanistan, and most of the 100,000 soldiers in country at the height of the surge had long departed.
Then came Donald Trump. When he announced his Afghanistan strategy last August, he admitted that he was initially uncomfortable with the idea of maintaining a military presence, which he ultimately decided not only to keep in place but also to modestly expand. In fact, the “conditions-based” approach that guides the Trump administration strategy — one that will let the situation on the ground, not artificial timelines, determine the fate of the US military presence — gives the White House an opportunity to withdraw.
Let’s assume the administration, sometime down the line, undertakes an appraisal of conditions on the ground. If the White House determines that increased battlefield pressure isn’t turning the tide of the war and that the Taliban still isn’t inclined to talks, then the US could decide to withdraw. Trump has never been comfortable about staying, and he surely knows that his core political base also doesn’t support extended and expensive military commitments abroad.
This is not to say, however, that a withdrawal is forthcoming anytime soon, and certainly not in response to a Taliban demand. If a pullout happens, the US government will do it on its own terms and at a time of its choosing.
There are compelling arguments both in support of and against a withdrawal.
Stay or withdraw? When it comes to the Afghanistan quagmire, there are simply no good options for the US.
On the one hand, a 17-year military presence hasn’t prevented the Taliban from expanding its reach and areas of outright control; it now holds more territory than at any time since 2001. It also hasn’t prevented the arrival and consolidation of Daesh fighters. The US military effort in Afghanistan has cost America the lives of nearly 2,500 soldiers, not to mention hundreds of billions of dollars — including, according to one estimate
, a whopping $4 million per hour.
And yet a withdrawal is also fraught with risk.
The Taliban insists it would stop fighting after the departure of foreign forces. However, it would actually have a stronger incentive to take up rather than lay down arms in the event of a US withdrawal. The departure of US troops would gift the Taliban an immense battlefield advantage and put it in a strong position to achieve its long-standing goal of overthrowing the Afghan government.
And, even if it doesn’t achieve that goal, the Taliban would still be able to deliver devastating blows to Afghan security forces, take over much more territory, and further fritter away at the already-tenuous writ of the Afghan state. The consequences could include rampant destabilization, an expansion of lawless spaces, and civil war. Resilient Al-Qaeda forces, resurgent Daesh fighters and other international terror groups based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region could exploit these ugly conditions and establish new sanctuaries.
In effect, a US military withdrawal from Afghanistan could produce the very problems that the initial American intervention was meant to — and, in some cases, did — eliminate. Indeed, US forces, in relatively short order after their arrival in 2001, destroyed the Al-Qaeda sanctuaries used to help plot the 9/11 attacks.
For the US, the inconvenient truth is that staying and going are both problematic. When it comes to the Afghanistan quagmire, there are simply no good options.
• Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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