Small Wars Journal

If Trump Wants To Put America First He Will Withdraw From Afghanistan

If Trump Wants To Put America First He Will Withdraw From Afghanistan

Skip Shelton

I recently returned to Afghanistan after being away for five years and observed a calamitous back sliding in security, governance, and rule of law. In lieu of a deus ex machina on the horizon foretelling success in Afghanistan a proverbial black buzzard hovers over the carcass of 250 years of Western intervention.  The county is as corrupt as ever, dangerous as ever, and the Ghani government’s writ does not extend beyond a few hundred meters from the Presidential Palace. After four trillion dollars, 2,500 US servicemen killed, and another 50,000 maimed Afghanistan is no better off than it was before the titanic expenditure of US blood and treasure. President Trump campaigned on being a no-nonsense businessman who would extract our nation from bad deals. The President should follow his gut and end American involvement in Afghanistan. 

I have spent the last 13 years of my life serving as an American diplomat and development professional.  I have spearheaded multimillion dollar community stabilization initiates; coordinated provincial elections; conceptualized, trained, equipped, and fielded a national police force; and organized trade delegations to attract international buyers for Afghan commodities.  After personally spending over $150M of US tax payer funds in Iraq & Afghanistan, I realized that no amount of Allied money, treasure, or technical assistance can solve the underlying societal maladies which are manifested in war, dysfunctional government, and an aversion to modernity.

President Trump would do well to understand that our interests in Afghanistan are narrow, defined, and achievable (if not achieved): to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base to attack the West. This was effectively done by 2004 and can be achieved by having a handful of kill teams in theatre. The President should ask his advisors why are we still in Afghanistan.   ISIS-Khurasan has never had more than a few hundred—if that—fighters in Afghanistan; these men spend half of their time fighting the Taliban and the other half fighting the Afghan government. The Taliban, although brutal and repressive, have no interest in attacking the Western homeland and only shoot, bomb, and kidnap us in their country because they want us to leave their country.   I say we should have obliged them long ago.

While the US military is a superb fighting force and enjoys operational supremacy, it is ill-suited to address the Afghan challenge and cannot kill enough enemies, win enough hearts and minds, or raise enough indigenous forces to pacify those who hate us simply because we are present in Afghanistan; nor can my former colleagues at USAID and State drag and bludgeon their civilian counterparts into creating an accountable government and embracing a modern and inclusive civil society. A battlefield commander will always ask for more personnel, more money, and more reconstruction programs. It’s their job to do so. But a strong Commander-in- Chief understands what’s in our collective national interest and balances the request for treasure to fund foreign expeditions with the needs of the US homeland. Trump was not elected to have USAID spend almost 1USB$ this year on Afghan education, public health, justice sector support, and counterdrug efforts. His supporters would surely want this billion dollars to be spent on our own failing schools, broken healthcare system, and opioid addiction problems.

The Trump Administration is entertaining the idea of privatizing the war in Afghanistan by flooding the country with Blackwater contractors (  The former Blackwater Chief, Eirk Prince, has advanced the idea of contractor force with a dual hatted Macarthur like figure serving as both military and political commander.   Prince doesn’t want to be MacArthur but rather Marcus Aurelius.   President Trump is not a fool and should not consider such a losing idea. For starters, no mercenary army—let’s call it what it is—will do what 135,000 American troops could not do: create a stable and lasting peace in Afghanistan. Even if they could, the American taxpayer will still be billed for the trillion-dollar occupation as the Afghan government is unable to stand without US financial assistance. We not only train and equip the Afghan security forces but we pay for its sustainment. 

While the Blackwater men are crack shots, killing more Afghans less discriminately is not the answer to this war. Ditto for cost reduction too as the US taxpayer will still be on the hook for the salaries and medical care of the contractors—now operating under the Blackwater flag instead of Old Glory. While privatization is optimal in some arenas, the war in Afghanistan is certainly not one of them.