Feb 13, 2020 - World

The Afghanistan conundrum

On patrol in Paktika province in 2009. Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

President Trump says he's "very close" to a deal that will begin the end of America's war in Afghanistan.

Why it matters: There’s a reason the U.S. has been stuck in Afghanistan for nearly two decades. Pulling out would leave the precarious structure it's attempted to build in danger of collapse.

What they’re saying:

  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said there has been a "breakthrough" after a year of negotiations with the Taliban.
  • Trump said, "We’re going to know over the next two weeks."
  • National security adviser Robert O'Brien said he's "cautiously optimistic" an announcement is forthcoming. Trump's position is clear, O'Brien said: "It's time for America to come home."

Between the lines: Trump is not the first American president to hold that position.

  • "President Bush wanted out, President Obama wanted out, President Trump wants out," says Michael Morell, who held top roles at the CIA under both Bush and Obama. "Nobody can see a path to this ending, and the American people are getting tired of it."
  • "What’s held them back is a belief that once we leave, the Taliban’s going to take over ... and offer al-Qaeda safe haven again."
  • "That is a risk that President Bush wasn’t willing to take, President Obama wasn’t willing to take, and President Trump earlier in his term wasn’t willing to take," says Morell, who hosts the Intelligence Matters podcast.

State of play: Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Thursday that the U.S. and Taliban had “negotiated a proposal for a seven-day reduction in violence."

  • The conditions are vague. If the administration deems they’ve been met, it could sign a deal with the Taliban.
  • The U.S. would then withdraw some troops and the Taliban would enter negotiations with the Afghan government about the country's political future.
  • Esper indicated the U.S. was prepared to reduce its troop count to 8,600 from around 12,000. After that, the process would be "conditions-based."

Between the lines: Obama pledged a "conditions-based" withdrawal at the outset of his presidency. The conditions were never ripe. They're unlikely to be for years to come.

  • "You’re never going to be able to get the Afghan government to a place where they’re going to be able to hold this together themselves," Morell says.
  • "We could stay another 20 years and we wouldn’t be able to train them and reduce the corruption to the point where they could survive on their own."
  • Morell says if the U.S. were to withdraw not only troops but financial assistance, “the government would collapse in a matter of weeks.”

What to watch: For now, Trump may be satisfied with a partial deal and a partial troop reduction. Ultimately, he clearly wants out. So do all of the leading 2020 Democrats.

  • There’s no political will to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely, and leaving will never not be risky.

The bottom line: The administration is quite reasonably searching for a way to “leave with our head held high,” Morell says.

  • “But we should not in any way delude ourselves into believing that a deal between us and that Taliban that results in our withdrawal will somehow end the bloodshed in Afghanistan. It won’t.”
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