Saturday, February 29, 2020

Leaving Troops in Afghanistan is Not the 'Winning' Trump Campaigned On
02/29/20 09:00 AM EST 


We are going to win so much, you are going to be sick and tired of winning” was one of the more infamous quotes from Donald Trump while on the campaign trail in 2016. He applied it to a variety of issues — economy, trade, national defense — but the theme resonated, especially to a war-weary country that was well into its second decade of armed conflict overseas. Trump broke the mold as a presidential candidate as well, heaping criticism on both Republicans and Democrats for the enduring wars in the Middle East and for casting the United States in the role of global policeman.

Yet as Trump enters the last year of this presidential term and the campaign cycle gets more traction, Americans must reflect on the president’s national security policies and actions to determine if they lined up with his campaign promises.

Certainly, some tactical actions, including the killing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Iranian General Qassem Soleimani may have felt like winning at the time, but in terms of correcting the failures of his predecessors — namely, ending wars — Trump’s record is incomplete.

Perhaps the most vexing conflict for Presidents Bush and Obama was the war in Afghanistan. Launched by President Bush with significant bi-partisan support following the Sept. 11 attacks, American military activity there is now in its 18th year, by far the longest military engagement in our history.

Reports indicate that Taliban forces are continuing to increase in strength and control large segments of the country. The Afghan government, installed by allied forces led by the United States, is more unstable than ever. An estimated 14,000 U.S. troops remain in the country under the guise of an anti-terrorism mission that is more aimed at keeping the government from completely collapsing. 

Against this backdrop, the Trump administration has attempted to negotiate an agreement scheduled to be signed on Feb. 29 with the intent of reducing violence and creating the foundations for long-term stability.

However, the need for the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan is far more pressing than any agreement between the Taliban and Kabul. While such a deal may help bring some stability to Afghanistan’s chaos, it should not be used as a prerequisite for Washington to do what is in our national interest and end our involvement.

Victory in Afghanistan has been elusive because, according to the Afghanistan Papers, American leaders could never agree on what exactly constituted winning. The original mission defined by the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) was to prevent future acts of terrorism against the United States by any nations, organizations, or persons that committed the 9/11 attacks or harbored such organizations or persons.

By most measures, this has been fulfilled. The Taliban government that harbored al Qaeda was overthrown by allied forces early in the conflict and the al Qaeda organization as it existed in 2001 has long been disrupted, culminating in the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011.

But the United States has remained in Afghanistan, spending nearly a trillion dollars propping up and defending an ineffective and corrupt Afghan government while battling extremists and insurgents of any stripe.

The unfortunate truth is that this has always been a fool’s errand; thinking otherwise is ignorant of the region’s history and the culture and religion of the people who live there. Those factors are antithetical to the western-style democracy that we seek to establish there, as evidenced by its lack of success anywhere else in the Middle East.

What makes this all the more frustrating is that American troops have not needed to remain in Afghanistan to meet our national security needs. As was recently testified in Congress, there are effective intelligence and diplomatic tools that can be used to prevent terrorism from Afghanistan and elsewhere, unlike the long-term presence of foreign forces in a country that can encourage terrorism from disaffected local populations.

For President Trump, any agreement keeping American military personnel in the country would be a failure to meet his campaign promises and relegate his efforts to the same status as the predecessors that he bemoans.

The real victory for the United States is ending the war, and will only be realized when the last of our service members leave the country and Congress repeals the 2001 AUMF. Continuing to throw money and lives into the Afghan wilderness is not “winning”; it is simply a continuation of the losing strategy that we’ve already tried.

Robert Moore is a public policy advisor for Defense Priorities. He spent nearly a decade as an advisor on Capitol Hill, most recently as the lead staffer for Senator Mike Lee on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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