This week, the Trump administration is moving forward with its plan to reduce American involvement in Afghanistan. The odds of success are not high. At this moment, however, the plan probably is the least-bad option.
Initially, the Taliban has agreed only to limit violence for seven days beginning at the stroke of midnight last Saturday. If relative quiet ensues, direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government will begin.
The goal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, is to reach a "political settlement to end the war in Afghanistan, reduce United States and Allied Forces presence, and ensure that no terrorist group ever uses Afghan soil to threaten the United States or our allies."
As a next step, U.S. forces will be downsized from the current level, about 13,000, to 8,600. That figure is not enough for serious war-fighting — in 2010 President Obama deployed 100,000 troops in Afghanistan — but U.S. commanders consider it minimally sufficient for an advise-and-assist mission, one that checks the Taliban's grander ambitions while protecting hard-won gains (more on those in a minute). Would Mr. Trump prefer to bring all Americans home before July 4th? No doubt. Why isn't he?
I suspect his advisers have painted a picture of what could happen were he to cut and run: A historic Taliban victory and U.S. defeat; helicopters evacuating diplomats from the U.S. embassy; pro-American Afghans having their heads chopped off with videos going viral; America's enemies around the world redoubling their efforts to hasten what would be seen as America's imminent decline and fall. Not the results Mr. Trump wants to produce — least of all in an election year.
Historians are unlikely to conclude that the conflict in Afghanistan has been pursued consistently or coherently.
Following the attacks of 2001, American forces toppled the Taliban in retaliation for its support for and protection of al Qaeda. President Bush said the mission was "to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime." Though the first of those goals was achieved, the Taliban transformed into a resilient insurgency.
Before long, Mr. Bush seemed to lose interest, turning his attention to Iraq. He toppled Saddam Hussein, but a well-conceived plan to turn combat success into political success did not follow. A bold counterinsurgency "surge" was required to get Iraq back on track.
Progress halted when President Obama abruptly withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq. "This could be one of the great achievements of this administration," said Vice President Joe Biden. "You're going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government." Instead, we saw a power vacuum filled by Islamic State fighters and Shia militias commanded by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Mr. Obama focused on Afghanistan, which he called the "right" war, the war that should be "prioritized." But he prosecuted it in a puzzling manner, for example by "surging" additional troops while reassuring the Taliban that those forces wouldn't tarry long.
Earlier this month, retired Gen. Jack Keane, chairman of the Institute for the Study of War, testified before the Senate Committee on Armed Services. His central point: Afghanistan remains "a vital national security interest, specifically the security of the homeland and the security of the American people."
He added: "I share the frustration of every member here with the length of the engagement, but this war with radical Islam came to us, and it is a generational war at a minimum with no easy or quick solution."
To avoid losing requires deploying small numbers of troops which, along with U.S. air power, can make our partners effective in their battles against common enemies. "This is a model that is working," Gen. Keane told the senators. He noted that in Syria, less than a thousand U.S. troops support 70,000 Kurdish and Arab troops who are battling the Islamic State while also keeping both Iranian and Russian forces at bay.
As for hard-won gains in Afghanistan: S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, is this week issuing a briefing paper arguing that there has been more progress in Afghanistan than media reports would suggest. Such positive developments "are gaining ground over the long term. These in turn demand and justify revisions in strategic thinking in Washington and other NATO capitals."
Mr. Starr documents more than 30 indices of progress. I have space to mention just four:
- The Taliban controls neither the capital of Kabul nor any of the country's 34 provincial capitals. Most of the territory the Taliban controls "is in the unpopulated desert south, and not in areas of significant economic activity."
- "Afghanistan's GDP has grown from $2.42 billion in 2001 to $20.82 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, its national debt has been cut by half in a decade."
- Basic literacy among Afghan men 15-24 is now close to 80 percent; among Afghan women it has risen from under 10 percent to over 50 percent.
- "Over the past five years over 2,000 generals and other senior military personnel were retired, to be replaced by younger and better trained officers."
Mr. Starr is not arguing that Afghanistan will soon resemble Costa Rica. He and Gen. Keane are arguing that a modest and sustainable U.S. presence in Afghanistan provides a significant return on investment for America's national security, while also improving the lot of the long-suffering Afghan people. "America first," President Trump has said, does not mean America alone. Nor need it mean America only.