Trump Makes a Bad Situation Worse in Afghanistan

The departing president neither embraced nor fully repudiated America’s mission.

A U.S. soldier
WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty

About the author: Jim Golby is a senior fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He formerly served as a special adviser to Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Mike Pence, and as a defense policy adviser at the U.S. Mission to NATO.

Since the day he entered office, President Donald Trump hasn’t been able to make up his mind about whether the United States should keep fighting in Afghanistan. His most recent decision to arbitrarily reduce U.S. troops’ presence to a nice, round number by January 15 was no different. Far from ending what he calls an “endless war,” Trump has only put the 2,500 troops who will remain in Afghanistan at greater risk. The situation was already bad, but he made it worse—just in time to hand the problem to President-elect Joe Biden.

Trump, a self-proclaimed dealmaker, campaigned in 2016—and again in 2020—on ending the war, which began in 2001. Instead, he grudgingly followed the advice of his military advisers and added 4,000 troops in August 2017. But that policy debate took its toll. Trump began to realize that the officers whom he describes as “my generals” weren’t his after all. Like Barack Obama before him, Trump felt boxed in by the Pentagon.

When Trump became bored with the generals’ approach, he handed the keys to special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Trump tasked Khalilzad with striking a deal with the Taliban that would remove U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan while securing American counterterrorism objectives. In February, Khalilzad did just that.

In exchange for guarantees that the Taliban would stop targeting U.S. forces and major Afghan cities, start peace talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, and refrain from allowing terrorist groups to use Afghan soil as a base for international attacks, Khalilzad committed to withdrawing all U.S. and NATO troops by May 2021. But despite the special envoy’s repeated reassurances to NATO allies that future troop withdrawals would be tied to conditions on the ground, the Taliban never lived up to what the Pentagon and allied military leaders expected. Casualties spiked in recent months and intra-Afghan talks remained stalled as the number of U.S. troops dropped to roughly 5,500 today. And the Taliban has still refused to break ties with al-Qaeda—an initial U.S. demand that was not part of the final deal.

With the support of military leaders, then–Defense Secretary Mark Esper urged Trump to halt further troop withdrawals until the Taliban fulfilled its promises. But that advice, coupled with several other policy clashes with Trump, merely sealed Esper’s fate. The president removed him and other top Pentagon leaders shortly after the election.

After firing and replacing three top civilian officials in the Pentagon, the consequences of the Afghanistan decision are now entirely Trump’s responsibility. Try though he might, the president can’t lay the blame for this last gasp at a coherent policy at anyone else’s feet. Any credibility remaining for Khalilzad’s deal has been destroyed, and Trump’s barely hidden desire to withdraw the troops all along—as well as his feckless management and inability to choose a policy vision and stick to it—has been revealed. The deal with the Taliban did more damage than if Trump had simply ordered troop reductions.

Even if 14,000 American troops were stationed in Afghanistan—as was the case in 2018—the U.S. would have no path to victory over the Taliban there. As unpalatable as it sometimes may seem, putting U.S. troops in harm’s way isn’t always about winning or solving problems. Sometimes it’s about managing risk—keeping minor problems from turning into major crises. For years, America’s de facto policy in Afghanistan has been to maintain enough troops to prevent the Taliban from overrunning the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and allowing terrorist groups to use the country as a base of operations again. During his tenure, Trump—for all his rhetoric about wanting to withdraw—has been no more willing to fully repudiate the basic U.S. policy than to defend it. Trump’s decision to withdraw more troops even though the Taliban is flouting its commitments may score some political points with Americans weary of the conflict, but it puts the remaining U.S. troops in a riskier situation.

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.

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.

NATO allies and partners will almost certainly decrease their troop commitments as well. U.S. and NATO bases will necessarily consolidate to fewer locations, primarily around Kabul, with only limited capability to advise Afghan commandos and pilots outside the capital. U.S. military commanders will likely prioritize their counterterrorism mission and air support to help Afghan security forces defend key population centers.

In characteristic fashion, Trump has spurned the example of his immediate predecessors, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Bush, facing a decision about whether to increase forces in Afghanistan in 2008, deferred the decision so Obama could implement the strategy of his choosing. Similarly, Obama, in his final days in office, avoided making a major call on whether to arm Kurdish forces in northern Syria for an attack on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, leaving the new administration room to chart its own course. Trump, however, seems intent on making the path forward in Afghanistan as difficult for Biden—and thus for American troops on the ground—as he possibly can.

The reality is that conditions for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan are likely to remain unfavorable for the foreseeable future. Even if Biden wants to continue only a long-term counterterrorism presence, troops will need resources to protect themselves and prevent government collapse. In any case, the new administration should set more realistic expectations about the length and nature of our commitment than Trump has.

Perhaps by design, perhaps by incompetence, perhaps out of sheer spite or arrogance, Trump has created the circumstances for another Bay of Pigs, Black Hawk Down, or Benghazi—situations where the United States inserted itself into overseas conflicts enough to draw lethal opposition but without sufficient strength to protect its people. Afghanistan was already in a dire state before Trump announced the latest round of troop withdrawals, but the departing president has made a bad situation worse—and probably untenable. The new administration will have to act fast to clean up Trump’s mess.