The keys to the success of a US withdrawal from Afghanistan
It was reported this week that the US Department of Defense is drawing up plans to bring home all American troops from Afghanistan this year.
If this goes ahead, the withdrawal would happen far ahead of the schedule agreed to in the US-Taliban deal in February. It would also mean that US President Donald Trump could claim to have kept a campaign promise — a very tempting prospect during an election year.
Earlier this year the US had about 12,000 troops in Afghanistan, the vast majority of whom were training the Afghan military. A smaller number conducted counterterrorism operations. According to publicly available information, about 9,000 US troops remain in the country.
Under the terms of the peace agreement reached by the US and representatives of the Taliban in February, the number of American forces was due to be reduced to 8,600 by July. Incidentally, this is approximately the number of troops there were in Afghanistan when Trump took office in 2017. The deal specified that all US and other foreign troops would be completely withdrawn by April 2021.
When asked during a recent press conference whether Thanksgiving Day — a major American holiday in November — was his target for a US exit from Afghanistan, Trump said: “No. I have no target but as soon as reasonable; over a period of time, but as soon as reasonable.”
It is hard to argue with Trump’s answer. He states very clearly he has no target, which is good. He acknowledges the full withdrawal will take place over a period of time, so it will not be sudden, but he wants to bring US troops home as soon as is reasonable. Most Americans would agree with this sentiment.
However, the big question that remains to be answered is this: What is reasonable? There are some who believe that after 19 years of conflict, US troops should be brought home immediately. There are others who believe it is reasonable to keep American troops in Afghanistan for as long as possible to ensure the viability of the peace process.
But in addition to focusing on what is or is not reasonable, President Trump should also focus on what is responsible.
The responsible policy choice for the US is to continue to support the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces for the foreseeable future. Not only will this help bring long-term stability to the country and the region, it will also keep America and its global partners safe.
There are two reasons why the US must remain engaged in Afghanistan to some degree, even after US troops have left.
First, the cost of funding the Afghan security forces is a relative bargain and it delivers a great return on investment for the US. The Afghan security forces have already been leading combat operations for half a decade. In the long term, they are the country’s key to stability and security.
Right now, this costs US taxpayers approximately $4.5 billion annually. Compare this with the height of the fighting, between 2010 and 2012, when the US had more than 100,000 troops leading combat operations across the country. At that time, the war was costing the US about $120 billion a year. So funding the cost of the Afghan military for a year now costs the same as what the US was paying for every 13 days of combat operations a decade ago. Therefore the US should, at a minimum, continue to pay for the Afghan security forces even if US troops are not invited to remain in the country.
Secondly, the US should learn the lessons of Afghanistan’s recent history and ensure that the nation’s security forces remain fully funded and capable. The peace agreement signed by the US and the Taliban cleared the way for intra-Afghan talks, but since then not much progress has been made.
However, there are also reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Last week, President Ashraf Ghani and his political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, reached a power-sharing agreement after two months of talks. This sends a signal to the Taliban, and the international community, that
There will be no enduring and meaningful settlement unless there is an agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Afghanistan’s political elites are united.
All sides will be watching what Washington does in the coming months. However much the Trump administration wants to end so-called “forever wars,” winding down the US military presence in Afghanistan must not also mean cutting off US financial support.
Also, there must be more of an international focus on the intra-Afghan talks. There will be no enduring and meaningful settlement unless there is an agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The decisions taken now will have a lasting effect on the future of the country. This is why any decision to remove US troops from Afghanistan must be both reasonable and responsible.
The last thing the world, or the Afghan people, need is for the country to fall back into the chaos it experienced in the early 1990s.
- Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey