Twenty-seven years ago, I was in Afghanistan to watch the Russians cut and run from a military quagmire and failed occupation that helped bring down the Soviet Union. In 2018, America is ready to walk away from a similarly failed military adventure. As Lt. Col. John W. Nicholson Jr., the exiting American and NATO forces’ commander in Afghanistan put it: “It is time for this war in Afghanistan to end.”
Our longest war drags on, and President Trump’s instincts and inclinations tell him to learn from the Soviet Union’s mistake a generation earlier: Get out of Afghanistan. ASAP. With Chief of Staff John Kelly’s policy role diminished and a refreshed national security team, the White House has quieted support for a continued large U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
Echoing instead in the president’s ears are the distant voices of Steve Bannon and Erik Prince, who would replace American armed forces with other countries’ NATO troops and, potentially, private armies. The United Kingdom is already expected to double its troop size and, despite Pakistan’s certain objections, Trump would also appreciate an Indian military presence. America could use the break and needs the help.
Recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to visit Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan to tell him — diplomatically, of course — that he needs to bring his domestic Taliban-friendly ISI intelligence service to heel and to cut off all aid and escape routes for Afghan insurgents and Taliban fighters. Pompeo assuredly made the case to Khan that America is the prime minister’s best bet for political survival and success. Or that America could potentially be his worst nightmare.
NATO and the U.S. Defense Department continually affirm their commitment to the Afghan mission, known as “Resolute Support.” In reality, however, America’s military is going to be sticking it out just long enough to call it a win, hand it over and get out.
Western pressure on Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to conclude a peace accord with the Taliban is increasing, and a recent short-lived Taliban ceasefire was enough to give the White House an argument for the Afghan leadership to close a deal. An Afghan-signed peace means the United States gets to wash its hands of the quagmire so that, as Pompeo recently reminded the world, what comes next is “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.”
America is fast approaching year 17 of this seemingly endless war, and it’s only getting dirtier and more expensive. This is the fifth presidential term that a commander-in-chief has not only failed to end the war, but instead has added more troops, dropped more bombs and made sure to keep the carnage and nastiness out of public sight. The only people who seemingly are aware of the NATO-inherited and managed war are soldiers, their families and Afghans.
In its early days, the Trump administration was either as unwilling or unable, as were previous administrations, to end the Afghan war. But things have changed.
A successful withdrawal from Afghanistan now would be positive news for the president, of course, but also be welcomed both by America’s military and citizens. Peace usually is. The affected country, however, will continue to suffer long after our troops are gone — especially as a mutating IS has found a new Afghan home.
I was a reporter in Afghanistan when there was no IS or Taliban — just an American-aligned and supported anti-Soviet Mujahedeen that eventually turned its strategy and guns against Kabul and the West. Back then, some Afghan warlords, particularly the rabid Jalalaluddin Haqqani, who died recently at age 71, did not want to share power with others. Instead he allied with an up-and-coming Taliban terror group to take over the country.
In 1991, my reporting team met with the grizzled, [drug]-running Haqqani whose American-supported, … and gun-crazed anti-Soviet Mujahedeen fighters made clear that when Moscow was tamed and expelled, they were next coming after the United States. Haqqani’s fighters recklessly shot around the compound, and Haqqani himself spit out his dark contempt with physical threats against my colleagues. Unsurprisingly, it was Haqqani and the Taliban government in Afghanistan that eventually provided Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida a haven and a base for launching the attacks on America on Sept. 11, 2001.
In the 20th century, America helped oust the Soviets from Afghanistan. It helped win that war and end the occupation, but then lost both its interest and the peace in Afghanistan. U.S. arms and training were partly responsible for creating the conditions that brought the Taliban’s rise and, now, for IS to find fertile ground. As the United States further pushes Afghanistan to sue for peace and for others to take its place, we must remember that the American sacrifices made in that war cannot be completely ignored or forgotten as we move on to the next tweetstorm or international crisis.
Out of sight must never be entirely out of mind. Gold Star families and military personnel must know that soldiers, like nonstop-deployed U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major Timothy A. Bolyard, the latest American casualty in Afghanistan, are both honored and not forgotten. For this to be true, America’s resolute support must be for our troops and not a lost cause. It’s time for Americans to turn out the lights in Afghanistan.
Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D., is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.