5 February 2019

It’s time to end the war that can never be won in Afghanistan

By Jacob Heilbrunn

Already, hawks in Washington are decrying the prospect that President Trump will withdraw the remaining 14,000 American troops from Afghanistanand are likening it to the pullout in 1973 from Vietnam.

“If we withdraw as we’re talking about in an 18-month timeline,” Ryan Crocker, the former US ambassador to Afghanistan told Foreign Policy magazine Monday, “you will simply see the Taliban move in and retake the country.”

But in looking to withdraw from Afghanistan, Trump is bowing to the inevitable. The surprising thing isn’t that Trump is exiting. It’s that he’s taken this long.

Just as American technocrats and military might failed to bring democracy to the Mekong Delta, as President Lyndon B. Johnson had promised, so America has been mired in Afghanistan for almost two decades with no signs of success. Afghanistan, like Vietnam, has become an unwinnable war that no amount of American firepower can transform into victory.

Whether it’s Hamid Karzai or Ashraf Ghani as president in Kabul, nothing seems to change even, though Washington has spent almost a trillion dollars in Afghanistan. The more we spend, the more dire the situation seems to become. Afghanistan, known as the graveyard of empires because the British and Soviets failed to subdue it, is draining precious manpower and resources from Washington’s ability to confront the very real threat posed by Russia and China.

It’s certainly possible that the Taliban will seek to void the terms of any agreement — which is supposed to include an enforcement mechanism to ensure that al Qaeda and ISIS do not establish a new foothold in the region — that US representative Zalmay Khalilzad hammers out with them. But even Afghan officials are holding out some optimism for the talks. President Ghani called upon the Taliban militants to reach a “speedy peace.”

It’s also the case that pulling American troops out of Afghanistan, where they are sitting ducks, doesn’t mean that special-operations units and CIA drones can’t continue to target Islamic militants.

Forewarned is forearmed. The mistakes that were made in the runup to Sept. 11, 2001, when the Clinton and Bush administrations weren’t focused on the threat posed by Islamic terrorists, are unlikely to recur.

Withdrawing from Afghanistan would fulfill a central campaign promise of Trump’s to end America’s senseless wars abroad and provide him with a potent political message as he heads into 2020.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has declared, “I don’t think we have enough money to be paying to build and rebuild and build and rebuild Afghanistan . . . Let’s rebuild America.”

It’s a message that Democrats, too, intend to flog during the upcoming election. In pulling out of Afghanistan, Trump would in essence be stealing the Democrats’ lunch money. It was former Vice President Joe Biden who originally called for creating reconciliation in Afghanistan, and candidates such as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris are hardly going to call for upping America’s involvement in an intractable civil war.

Afghanistan may never be headed for a triumphant conclusion, but leaving is a win-win for Trump. If Trump can end the war in Afghanistan as well as reach a peace deal with North Korea, he could go down in history as one of the most consequential Republican foreign-policy presidents in modern times.

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