America’s war in Afghanistan has dragged on too long. But the U.S. domestic political calendar shouldn’t dictate when to end it.
Under the peace agreement signed with the Taliban in February, the U.S. promised to withdraw all its troops within 14 months if the Taliban adhered to its pledge to cut all ties to al-Qaida. Yet the Pentagon is reportedly drafting plans that could bring the last 8,600 U.S. troops home before November’s election. Judging by recent tweets, that seems likely to be President Donald Trump’s preference.
Even if an expedited withdrawal doesn’t happen, floating the idea could prove damaging. The Taliban and the Afghan government are edging closer to their first direct talks. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah have struck a power-sharing agreement; Abdullah now heads peace efforts. A reduction in violence for the Eid holiday held for more than a week. A logjam over prisoner exchanges may be easing.
A U.S. dash for the exit could stall this progress. It would deny the U.S. leverage — even as evidence suggests the Taliban has maintained its links to al-Qaida. The Taliban would have reason to drag out intra-Afghan talks, then seek to defeat government forces on the battlefield once the Americans leave. Trump’s promise that the U.S. would “strike with a thunder like never before” if that happened isn’t credible.
The departure of U.S. troops might not open the gates of Kabul to the Taliban, but without a viable peace process it would be the prelude to more years of bloodshed and stalemate. Afghan forces still depend on the U.S. for air support and funding; foreign contributions account for about 90% of their budget. It’s unlikely the U.S. would keep spending at the current level, or that foreign military contractors performing other crucial tasks would stay in Afghanistan, if U.S. troops weren’t there. And a chaotic scramble for power would jeopardize already fragile aid and commercial projects.
After nearly two decades of war, politics shouldn’t dictate a decision as important as this. The U.S. should abide by the terms of its deal with the Taliban. If the insurgents want U.S. troops to leave sooner, they can fully disavow al-Qaida and accelerate the peace talks.
At the same time, the U.S. should continue to engage diplomatically with both sides and with regional powers to nudge those negotiations forward. It should work to maintain the flow of foreign aid to the Afghan government and civil society groups, and make clear that any Taliban attempt to seize power by force will threaten that funding.
Achieving anything like success in Afghanistan by next spring will be a herculean task. The U.S. shouldn’t make it even harder. That’s the least it owes its Afghan partners, and the thousands of Americans who have fallen on the Afghan battlefield.