Afghanistan is the United States’ longest war, and President Trump might be about to make it longer.
In a December call, Trump told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani “he would certainly continue to support Afghanistan security,” The Wall Street Journal reports, apparently volunteering his willingness to ship more Americans off to micromanage a country that has more than earned its title as the “graveyard of empires.”
This is at once a diversion from Trump’s prior comments and a strategic mistake. Rather than allowing himself to be drawn into repeating the imprudent nation-building commitments of Presidents Obama and Bush alike, Trump should heed his own past remarks and extricate the United States from what is certain to be further years of expensive, dangerous, and fruitless intervention.
More American troops are now dying in Afghanistan than in the fight against the Islamic State, and the Taliban is regaining territory.
Before his election, Trump long seemed to understand the boondoggle Afghanistan has become. “At some point, are they going to be there for the next 200 years?” he asked in 2015. “We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place. We had real brilliant thinkers that didn’t know what the hell they were doing. And it’s a mess.”
Trump was right then, and he was reiterating what was for him a familiar line of critique. In 2013, Trump tweeted his view that the U.S. should “get out of Afghanistan,” adding, “Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense!” In 2012, he called the war “a complete and total disaster,” urging Washington to “get with it, get out of Afghanistan. We’ve wasted billions and billions of dollars and more importantly thousands and thousands of lives,” Trump said. And in 2011, the then-future president described nation-building in Afghanistan as a pricey, counterproductive project that doesn’t serve American interests.
Since then, it is true the situation in Afghanistan has evolved—but it has changed in ways that should only redouble Trump’s interest in winding down U.S. involvement: More American troops are now dying in Afghanistan than in the fight against the Islamic State, and the Taliban is regaining territory. In fact, the terrorist organization now controls more of Afghanistan than it has any time since the 2001 invasion. As Trump once seemed to know, the original purpose of the invasion—capturing and/or killing the masterminds of 9/11—is long since accomplished, but instead of leaving once that work was done, Washington blundered into disastrous nation-building efforts.
Trump may believe he can backtrack on his established exit policy because Afghanistan has been a forgotten war since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
“After 15 years,” summarizes Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko, “Afghanistan still cannot support itself financially or functionally.” After 15 years, we’re right back where we started—only far deeper in debt—and yet somehow Trump’s correct assessment of this situation may not have made it into the White House with him.
Trump may believe he can backtrack on his established exit policy because Afghanistan has been a forgotten war since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It received just one passing mention in the first debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton and was never addressed in either subsequent showdown. Gallup polling from 2001 to 2015 showed generally declining support for the war, but one year after Obama’s 2014 declaration that U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan are over, Gallup just stopped asking.
The problem, of course, is that U.S. combat operations aren’t over and there is no plausible path to stability—let alone peace—in maintaining them for another decade and a half. Afghanistan’s best shot at a positive future comes from the Afghan people, not more American intervention. Trump seemed to understand this truth before he came to office; he should remember his own advice and act on it now.