When President Trump took office in 2017, the war in Afghanistan was 16 years old. The original mission, meant to punish the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and their Taliban enablers, was long since completed, but the Taliban held or contested 45% of Afghan territory. There were about 8,400 U.S. forces on the ground, far below the peak of 100,000 in 2010 (excluding contractors, who often equal or exceed the military presence proper). That deployment had been led by 17 commanders — turnover is high in the “graveyard of empires.”
Today, the war in Afghanistan is approaching 20 years old. U.S. taxpayers have spent nearly a trillion dollars on it (more if you count long-term costs like interest on debt and military healthcare). The Taliban holds or contests about 65% of Afghan territory. At summer’s end, there were about 8,600 U.S. forces on the ground, a figure that is supposed to drop to 2,500 by Inauguration Day. Some of those soldiers were born after the 9/11 attacks happened. Some are fighting the same war their fathers fought. When the war’s 18th commander took charge in 2018, he declared it “time for this war in Afghanistan to end.”
With Trump’s departure from the White House imminent — and President-elect Joe Biden equally insistent that he will end this intervention — a review of Trump’s record in this conflict is in order. What did he get right? And what can Biden do better to finally conclude our country’s longest war?
Trump’s decision to open peace talks with the Taliban and the Afghan government was a smart and pragmatic move. It acknowledged the reality that the Taliban won’t be eradicated in Afghanistan by American military means, and that intra-Afghan talks are vital if Afghanistan is ever to achieve a livable stability, let alone peace.
Trump also deserves credit for his reduction — limited though it is — of the U.S. ground presence. Although Trump increased the number of troops in Afghanistan in his first few years in office, he never attempted a large-scale, Obama-style surge, and he set a date for full American military departure in 2021. This is some progress, as is Trump’s open recognition that exiting an unwinnable 19-year war is not precipitous.
Starting in January, Biden can improve on Trump’s record. Instead of maintaining a small U.S. contingent in Afghanistan indefinitely, as the president-elect has said he plans to do, Biden should meet or hasten Trump’s late spring 2021 exit deadline. This would not please many elected officials, but it would be popular with the majority of Americans, and it could be touted as a show of unity with Trump followers.
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