‘U.S. Afghan policy for 15 years has not been nation-building, but exit-seeking.’
By VANCE SERCHUK: Nearly 16 years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States is nearing a seminal moment in its involvement in Afghanistan, as President Donald Trump continues with his national-security team to determine what to do about the deteriorating stalemate he inherited in South Asia.
The Trump administration is reportedly weighing several competing proposals for Afghanistan. While military commanders have recommended an increase of several thousand U.S. troops to enable increased support for the Afghan military and counterterrorism operations, the White House is also considering alternative approaches that could entail the reduction or even the complete exit of American conventional forces—relying instead on special operations forces, paramilitaries, and contractors.
To an unusual degree, the debate over the future of the Afghan war is really about its past: specifically, why a decade and a half of military operations has failed to turn the tide. It is a fair question, and President Trump has been correct to press for answers before deciding on a way ahead.
Some argue the problem has been America’s unrealistic ambitions in Afghanistan—undertaking a costly nation-building campaign in the hopes of transforming a broken country—and that the best course, therefore, is to scale back military involvement and minimize further entanglement in this graveyard of empires.
The problem with this argument is that it inverts the history of what has actually happened in Afghanistan since 2001. In fact, the consistent theme of U.S. Afghan policy for 15 years has not been nation-building, but exit-seeking. From nearly the moment the first U.S. forces arrived in the wake of 9/11, Washington has been trying to hand off responsibility for the country and draw down its military presence. In doing so, it has inadvertently thrown a lifeline to the enemies it went to Afghanistan to defeat, encouraged regional powers to hedge against it, and needlessly compounded the difficulty of this mission. The key question now is whether Trump recognizes this mistake, or repeats it.
What Washington has never attempted in Afghanistan, over the course of more than 15 years there, is the one policy that has been necessary from the outset: an explicit commitment to a sustainable, sustained U.S. military presence in the country.
Making such a commitment would send the unequivocal message to the Taliban that it cannot hope to prevail on the battlefield and must therefore pursue political reconciliation seriously. It would also position America for the tough diplomacy to convince Afghanistan’s neighbors, foremost Pakistan, to stop backing insurgent groups in preparation for an American exit.
The strategic paradox of Afghanistan is that the more the United States has sought to leave, the more it has fostered the conditions that have forced it to stay. By contrast, the sooner Washington can convince all parties to the conflict of its long-term intent to remain, the sooner it can set the conditions to drive the conflict towards an end game.
To be clear, a sustained U.S. military presence in Afghanistan alone is no guarantee of success. But repeating the mistakes of the past by trying to withdraw troops from the country is a surefire recipe for more failure.
More than 60 years after the end of the Korean War, tens of thousands of American troops are still deployed there—in the shadow of Kim Jong Un’s arsenal—without any hint of domestic controversy, because Americans long ago accepted that this was in the national interest. So too with the enduring U.S. military presence in Europe and Japan after World War II, and across the Middle East since the early 1990s.
In truth, the foremost responsibility of any president is to keep Americans safe. Preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a terrorist sanctuary from which attacks on America can be launched is as clear-cut a vital national interest as any in the world. If the price for this is a sustained military presence there—and the alternative, withdrawal, is more likely to result in a terrorist victory along the lines of what happened in Iraq after America left—that is not seemingly a prohibitively difficult case to make to the American people. On the contrary, it is telling that, almost 16 years after 9/11, there is no great groundswell of public protest or opposition to America’s current operations in Afghanistan. In a perfect world, of course, U.S. forces wouldn’t be required to stay in Afghanistan—or anywhere else for that matter—but as Americans long ago internalized, that is not the world they live in.
To his admirers and detractors alike, Donald Trump has promised to be a revolutionary force in U.S. foreign policy, prepared to overturn longstanding practices if they do not advance America’s interests, and to deliver tough truths to the American people. That is precisely the opportunity, and the imperative, that now exists in Afghanistan. Rather than following the example of his predecessors in searching for an exit from the outset of his presidency, he can learn from their experience and commit to stay. In addition to being the only plausible path to a decent outcome in Afghanistan, it also has the virtue of never before having been tried.
(The original version of the article appeared in The Atlantic)
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