Are We Headed Toward an Ignoble End in Afghanistan?

This week: recent developments in the original 9/11 conflict, the war in Afghanistan. News reports suggest that the Trump administration is close to signing some kind of deal with the Taliban. But it’s not a peace accord. The emerging details of the deal—and the preemptive concessions the U.S. is apparently willing to make for the Taliban to agree to it—suggest that the deal is less about securing a lasting peace and more about political and diplomatic cover in anticipation of an exit decided on long ago. First, some background. 

A comment on the “endless wars.”

The U.S. government wants to pivot away from the 9/11 wars and, for the most part, already has, as I explored in the first issue of Vital Interests. The days of large-scale American war efforts to combat the jihadists are over. But the jihadists haven’t been defeated, so the U.S. maintains a presence in several countries to fight them. According to published reports, there are fewer than 20,000 American servicemembers in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, with several thousand more stationed across Africa. These figures are just ballpark estimates and don’t include the thousands of contractors who are also working in various jihadist hotspots.  

President Trump and his Democratic challengers want to further reduce that footprint, decrying these “endless wars.” I’ve spoken with senior Trump administration officials about these matters on multiple occasions since 2017, including just recently. Two officials reiterated to me earlier this month that President Trump doesn’t want to be stuck with the Afghan war heading into the 2020 presidential election. He doesn’t want to be forced to explain why his administration has kept Americans in the country after he vowed to extricate the U.S. from the supposedly unwinnable war. In other words, he has a strong political incentive to show Americans that he is “ending” their country’s role in the war by withdrawing most, if not all, of the remaining forces. The president is, of course, an erratic decision-maker, so there are no guarantees. But he has repeatedly expressed his desire to just get out on multiple occasions.  

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