Small Wars Journal

Why Won’t the US Leave Afghanistan?

Thu, 10/18/2018 - 12:33am

Why Won’t the US Leave Afghanistan?


William McHenry


During the past few months, many foreign policy analysts have overlooked a series of troubling reports from America’s war in Afghanistan. In late July, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration has been pushing Afghan security forces to withdraw from “vast stretches of the country.” Moreover, in the last few weeks, the Afghan government sustained significant losses defending territory in four districts from the Taliban, and Kabul has stopped reporting the number of deaths of its soldiers because the losses in many districts have become unsustainable. Nonetheless, in what has become a familiar pattern, American troops were dispatched to help Afghan security forces eject the insurgents and re-establish control.


Taken together, these data points indicate that the United States’ new Afghanistan strategy under the Trump administration is in significant trouble. Indeed, it seems that the policy was designed to protect President Trump’s domestic political interests, but it fails to address the governance challenges needed to achieve long-term success in Afghanistan.


The original goal for the invasion of Afghanistan was to defeat Al Qaeda, but at a congressional hearing in June, a US general testified that “we [the United States] have decimated Al Qaeda.” Although the reason for going into Afghanistan has been met, President Trump himself has shed doubt over the likelihood and timeline of any additional success. In a speech outlining US strategy in Afghanistan, Trump stated that, “Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement [in Afghanistan].” But, more importantly, he added: “nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.” Accordingly, what do US military planners hope to accomplish? And why do US political leaders fear withdrawing?


Some experts contend that the United States should remain in Afghanistan until this political settlement materializes by increasing the capacity of the Afghan security forces through arms sales and training exercises. Others suggest that the United States will maintain its military presence in the country to hedge against growing Chinese political and economic influence in Central Asia, and to deter Iran and Pakistan.


However, these arguments ignore the role that US domestic politics has played in the decision to commit the US military to the country for an indeterminate amount of time. The Trump administration decided on the strategy of continued military support without a definitive end because they feared the political consequences of withdrawal. Many previous US presidents have similarly found it is much easier to perpetuate conflict than it is to end it. For instance, throughout the Vietnam War, a series of US presidents did not withdraw military forces because of the potential domestic political consequences.


Indeed, not only are there significant political similarities between the Vietnam War and the War in Afghanistan, but there are also some similarities in the character of both conflicts. In both cases, the US military exit plan is predicated on increasing the capacity of local forces while seeking a peace settlement with the opposing military force and its neighbors. However, researchers Keith Darden and Harris Mylonas argue in the journal Ethnopolitics that “increasing the raw number of forces trained…does little, on its own, to build the capacity of the state or increase order.” Instead, these experts argue that this strategy is doomed to fail because the United States has unsuccessfully cultivated the loyalty of the Afghan population and the US-supported Afghan government has not established legitimacy across the country. More specifically, they note that stable governance is unlikely to be established until the Afghan government becomes more ethnically inclusive with the country’s many tribal identities.


However, the new US strategy under the Trump administration does not consider these governance issues. Instead, it is aimed at protecting the president’s political weaknesses as many previous administrations did during the Vietnam War. The administration’s new strategy to provide additional military support to the government in Kabul aims to ensure that it will survive the Trump administration’s first term, but it does not address any of the long-term nation-building challenges.


Former President Barack Obama also faced domestic political criticism for withdrawing all US military forces from Iraq. Although many factors beyond the lack of a US military presence contributed to the deterioration of the security situation in Iraq, removing US troops was consistently cited by the Republican Party as the reason that ISIS was able to conquer a significant portion of the country. There’s little doubt that President Trump is aware of this potential political issue as his campaign savaged the Obama administration for this decision. Furthermore, it is concerning that President Trump agreed to continue to provide military support to the Afghan government given that he has expressed considerable skepticism about this strategy, and more broadly, unlike many in his political party, he campaigned on a message of reducing US commitments in the region.


Nonetheless, President Trump seems to have accepted that the risks of withdrawal outweigh the costs of perpetuating a military commitment to a conflict without a coherent plan to end it. It is one of his more cynical foreign policy decisions, but it has many precedents throughout US history.


About the Author(s)

William McHenry is an Eastern Europe & Eurasia Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is the Program Associate for The Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia (PONARS Eurasia). His work at PONARS Eurasia focuses on connecting scholarship to policy on and in Russia and Eurasia by fostering a community of rising scholars committed to developing policy-relevant and collaborative research. He received his Masters in International Affairs from the American University, School of International Service with a focus on Eurasia, and he holds a B.A. from Linfield College in Political Science. You can follow Will on twitter @wmchenry.