Trump’s mishandling of the conflict has other consequences as well. During my time as a defense-policy adviser at the United States Mission to NATO, I saw how Trump’s lack of commitment to the deal put his own NATO ambassador, Kay Bailey Hutchison, in the impossible position of trying to reassure NATO allies and Afghan partners that the U.S. would involve them in major decisions. It hasn’t. Recent sharp comments by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg—who warned that “Afghanistan risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks on our homelands”—reveal allied leaders’ frustration. Trump’s willingness to ignore the conditions his own envoy had placed on the Taliban disrespected our allies and partners, who—despite not being attacked on 9/11—stuck by us for 19 years, sacrificing more than 1,000 of their soldiers and billions of dollars from their treasuries. Trump’s approach only makes cooperation more difficult, and it makes the U.S. appear less reliable.
Trump’s maneuverings have also weakened President Ghani, while legitimizing the Taliban as a credible negotiating partner. Ghani, now in his second term, was declared the winner of an election last fall that went unresolved for months. In addition to the Taliban, he faces rival power brokers within Afghanistan and even within the government he leads. Instead of helping him resolve these conflicts, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressured Ghani into making unnecessary concessions to the Taliban while gaining nothing enduring in return. The annual fighting season is drawing to a close, and the Taliban is almost certain to feel emboldened—and Ghani’s government hobbled—when offensives begin anew in the spring.
Read: The U.S. once wanted peace in Afghanistan
Nearly two decades of war have now passed with little to show in terms of sustainable progress. Many Americans—especially service members who have fought and sacrificed in Afghanistan—might have understood, or even sympathized with, Trump’s inclination to rush for the exits. In my own research with Duke University’s Peter Feaver, more than 40 percent of Americans chose not to even offer an opinion when asked about the conflict.
But a complete withdrawal would likely have devastating results. The war in Afghanistan would dramatically escalate, with the burden largely falling on innocent Afghan citizens. Although the imminent threat from terrorist groups—including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State—is sometimes overstated, the chaos that would follow a total U.S. withdrawal would give them room to reestablish their capabilities.
These potential consequences—as well as the logistical challenges of removing troops quickly—are likely what dissuaded Trump from withdrawing U.S. forces altogether. Now, by ordering all but 2,500 American troops to come home before an arbitrary deadline dictated by Biden’s inauguration, Trump is leaving behind an unsustainable presence in Afghanistan, a crisis for the Afghan people, and a mess for the Biden-Harris administration.