The Wall Street Journal editorial board warned that Trump might be goaded by the Taliban into making an “impulsive” decision to precipitously withdraw U.S. Forces from Afghanistan. The best chance for a U.S. “exit with honor,” the board claimed, was “to make clear to the Taliban that the U.S. won’t force its allies to accept a bad deal.”
However, predicting a U.S. withdrawal on a Taliban-Kabul agreement will guarantee America’s longest war continues unabated, deepening the unacceptable cost to the U.S.
Trump appears to see the situation in similar terms. He was quick to share his displeasure when he tweeted to the Journal that “we have been there for 19 years,” and thus “no, I am not acting impulsively.” Though it would be ideal if the Taliban and Afghan government could come to a sustainable peace agreement, such an outcome is not necessary for the U.S. to finally withdraw.
Before Obama’s 2009 surge in Afghanistan, there were already back-channel secret negotiations going on between the Afghan government and the Taliban’s number two leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. The cleric communicated that the Taliban was willing to negotiate an end to the conflict.
In January 2010, however–the same month Obama’s surge began — Baradar was captured in a joint raid conducted by the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) and the CIA, ending any chance at negotiations.
At the time of the capture, the operation was hailed as a breakthrough and evidence of Pakistan’s willingness to work with the United States to end the war. As was later revealed, however, the ISI knew full well where Baradar had been all along and only facilitated his capture because, as a New York Times investigation revealed, “[the ISI] wanted to shut down secret peace talks that Mr. Baradar had been conducting with the Afghan government that excluded Pakistan, the Taliban’s longtime backer.”
American officials undoubtedly knew Baradar had been seeking a negotiated settlement to end the war but many top American leaders believed the ongoing surge could compel the Taliban to sue for peace once they realized they could not defeat the U.S. coalition. Washington preferred an American military victory to a less-satisfying negotiated end.
A year after Baradar’s capture, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told CNN the Taliban wouldn’t sincerely negotiate until they felt “themselves under military pressure” by winter 2011. Gates said he had sympathy for those Americans who were “war-weary,” but encouraged them to have more patience. This war would end, he claimed, “essentially the same way that it ended in Iraq-with us playing a key role for some period of time.” We would be able to withdraw the U.S. military when the Afghan government was able to “keep control of their own country so that al Qaeda can no longer find a safe haven in Afghanistan.”
Gates’ words are very instructive in today’s situation.
He implied that after just a little more coercion with more military power, the Taliban would recognize it couldn’t win and be forced to sue for peace. Obama gave Gates a force of 140,000 U.S. and NATO troops and years of high-intensity kinetic operations to bring the Taliban to its knees, but the group never capitulated.
Advocates of prolonging the war seem oblivious to this failed past when making almost the same argument today: we just need a little more time and more military effort and then we’ll have peace. That thinking was demonstrably flawed when Gates made his comments in 2011; time has only made more painfully clear how bankrupt such beliefs are.
If Trump does not act on his instincts and end this war on our terms, we will still be having this conversation in another decade, and no doubt advocates at that time will be repeating the same discredited claims. It is time we stop hoping for the unattainable while paying exorbitant prices in American blood and treasure. It’s time — finally — to leave Afghanistan.