Withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan was one of President Trump’s signature campaign promises. It would be highly ironic if his impulsive decision Monday to halt peace talks with the Taliban ultimately caused him to escalate the war he sought to wind down.
Trump’s fondness for stopping what he calls “endless wars” has long rankled the U.S. foreign policy establishment. They firmly believe in the U.S. missions to combat Islamic terrorism that have led to long-term troop deployments in a host of countries. The establishment is surely pleased with Trump’s decision.
Whether Trump will be so pleased with himself in a few months is another question. Indeed, his announcement on Tuesday that he fired national security adviser John Bolton, his administration’s chief hawk, suggests he might be having second thoughts. He made these decisions after the Taliban took responsibility for an attack in Kabul this past Thursday that killed an American. But now that the Taliban’s peace feelers, feeble as they might have been, have been rejected, the Taliban has an obvious strategic option: vastly escalate its war efforts and target other Western personnel. The aim would be simple: make it so that the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan causes more pain to the United States and its allies to force Trump back to the table.
Trump would likely not take the bait at first. He likes to appear strong, and bargaining in the face of increased pressure will make him look weak. He would prefer to ignore those provocations, much as he has overlooked North Korea’s missile tests in the past year in the hopes that North Korean officialswill come back to the bargaining table without Trump appearing to submit to them. If that’s all the pressure the Taliban can bring to bear, Trump will likely be in the clear politically.
The difficulties come if the Taliban can mount sustained military pressure that the Afghan military finds difficult to control. Should it begin to make more headway, U.S. military brass would surely make the same recommendation they made to President Barack Obama in 2010: Increase U.S. military involvement to reverse Taliban gains.
This is where Trump’s political interests and U.S. strategic interests would likely diverge. He surely does not want to reverse a central political promise in an election year. The media would likely play this as a failure on his part. Every American killed or wounded in combat would be widely publicized to levy maximum collateral damage on Trump’s political standing. U.S. interests would require him to bite the bullet and soldier on. But caught between the Scylla of reversing himself and the Charybdis of a hike in casualties, Trump would surely be tempted to let the Afghan government falter and perhaps fall.
One could easily see how this would play out. Pleas for more troops and airstrikes from the Afghan government would go largely unheeded, much as similar pleas from the South Vietnamese government in 1974 and 1975 were ignored in the face of invasion from the North. As government troops gave way and buckled, morale would drop and troops might begin to melt away. Trump likely wouldn’t blame his own decision; instead, he would blame the Obama administration’s own reversal on troop withdrawal that elongated the quagmire. He would then step in, negotiating a fig-leaf peace deal that allows for all U.S. troops to be withdrawn by early 2021. Left without a choice, the Afghan government wearily signs on, knowing the deal likely only extends the government’s life until such time as the Taliban chooses to end it.
This outcome would be a disaster for U.S. strategy, even as it would be a political master stroke for Trump. Voters tired of 20 years of war would care little for the long-term harm withdrawal under fire would cause to our alliances, but our adversaries would take note. U.S. abandonment of South Vietnam in 1975 was quickly followed by Soviet-sponsored Cuban adventurism in Angola, Mozambique and Somalia. Communist guerrillas conquered Nicaragua and besieged El Salvador, while anti-Western mullahs toppled the shah of Iran, creating the Islamic government we still grapple with. It wasn’t until the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, murdering the leader of their own puppet government, and Iranians took more than 50 Americans hostage in Tehran that U.S. voters woke up and decided to shake up the foreign policy establishment, putting Ronald Reagan in power.
Trump’s foreign policy has been characterized by a series of high-risk reversals of prior U.S. policy. None of those risks has blown up into a conflict thus far even as few if any of Trump’s moves have resulted in their desired outcomes. Trump’s withdrawal of his own peace offer might be the decision that tests whether those risks were worth taking.
U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan makes strategic sense if it allows us to refocus our foreign policy lens on our primary adversaries — China, Russia and Iran — in conjunction with our allies. That should have been the ultimate goal of peace talks with the Taliban, but that possibility now seems lost.
Trump backed out of the Afghan peace deal because he feared looking weak. Let’s pray that Trump doesn’t mistake future weakness for strategic genius if the Taliban turns up the heat.