James Mackenzie / Reuters

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made news this week by suggesting that President Donald Trump has instructed him to pursue troop reductions in Afghanistan by Election Day 2020. “He’s been unambiguous,” Pompeo said. “End the endless wars. Draw down. Reduce.” After an uproar, the secretary blamed sloppy press reporting and said that any withdrawals of U.S. forces from Afghanistan will be based on conditions on the ground. Yet the comments resonated because of Trump’s clear and oft stated desire to end the war sooner rather than later.

Any pegging of American troop withdrawals to the U.S. political calendar would represent a strategic mistake, and it’s one that Trump himself rightly criticized Barack Obama for making during the previous administration. Obama planned to withdraw all forces from the country by the end of his second term, a commitment he abandoned after watching Iraq descend into chaos.

The Obama administration’s publicly stated reason for announcing calendar-based withdrawals was to induce the Kabul government to take on greater responsibility, stop free riding on the American presence, and improve governance. Nothing of the kind happened, and now there appears a different public rationale for timed American troop withdrawals. Such specificity, it is suggested, will show the Taliban that the United States is serious about ending the war and jump-start the diplomatic effort spearheaded by Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad. Trump has authorized direct talks with the Taliban (rather than the “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” model that for years never produced results) and has been willing to put the U.S. troop presence on the table, which is the Taliban’s key concern. While it is still hard to imagine a diplomatic outcome that ends the war on terms protective of American interests and the Afghan people, it can’t be ruled out.

But the success of such a negotiation depends on a credible U.S. commitment to stay in Afghanistan without a deal, and that is precisely what the administration undermines by expressing eagerness to abandon the theater. Reductions in the U.S. presence should be tied to conditions in Afghanistan, which in turn depend partly on negotiations with the Taliban. A continued military presence strengthens diplomacy’s hand; heading for the exits would satisfy the Taliban’s chief demand without inducing corresponding commitments on terrorism, the Afghan government, or basic rights.  

It’s not hard to see why the president—and most Democratic presidential candidates—so fervently seek an end to the war. America has been at it for 18 years, and seen nearly 2,500 Americans killed (including two last week and 14 this year), billions spent, and a fight far longer and harder than anyone expected in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The notion of defeating the Taliban and transforming Afghan society expired years ago, and Americans are questioning what they have to show for all the exertion. Pledges to end the war resonate on both sides of the political aisle.

Yet leaving irrespective of conditions, and simply scratching out the best possible deal on the way out, would risk returning to a situation like that which brought America to Afghanistan in the first place. The alternative is to retain a residual military force in the country indefinitely or, more attractive but less likely, withdraw over a long period pursuant to a binding agreement with the Taliban. Despite recent, hopeful reporting that a peace deal and troop reduction are in the offing, the reality is that the solidity of both paths is weakened by administration messages suggesting a politically driven U.S. withdrawal.  

Trump, while clearly desiring an end to the war’s expenses, has been all over the place regarding Afghanistan. He entered office devoted to stopping what he described as early as 2012 as a “complete waste.” In 2017, however, he increased U.S. troop levels. In announcing his new Afghanistan strategy, Trump warned against a “hasty withdrawal,” adding that “America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out.” The U.S. presence, he said, would be conditions-based, rather than time-based.

By December 2018, Trump had changed course. The president decided to cut the 14,000 American troops then in Afghanistan by about half, and permitted that plan to be publicly known. He’s said it’s “ridiculous” that America bears such a large share of the Afghanistan burden. And then there was Pompeo’s mixed messaging about the imperative to draw down by Election Day versus his assurance that the U.S. was committed to a conditions-based drawdown. The administration has gone from secret plans, troop increases, and conditions-based withdrawals to open plans, troop reductions, and possibly calendar-based withdrawals.

The president and his team need to get their house in order. Pompeo said, “We think there’s a path to reduce violence, achieve reconciliation, and still make sure that the American counterterrorism effort in Afghanistan has value and the potential to reduce risk in the United States.” There may be, but getting on that path requires a genuine shift from the desire to leave at almost any cost to a drive to pursue negotiations while protecting U.S. security interests.

Afghanistan may be America’s forgotten war, lost in the focus on China and Russia and Iran and North Korea. But the problems there endure. Whether, how, and in what ways America ends its role in that war will be vitally important—not just for the Afghan people but for Americans themselves.

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