Donald Trump's Desire to 'Get the Hell Out' of Afghanistan Amid Taliban Gains Could Lead to Catastrophe

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Donald Trump wants to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, amid Taliban gains and a "devastating" new report. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty

Young Queen Victoria was shocked in 1842 when she belatedly learned the entire British army in Afghanistan, some 16,000 men, had been annihilated by tribal warriors. But not, evidently, for long. Undeterred, the United Kingdom would shrug off the loss—fight two more wars in Afghanistan— and never gave a thought to relinquishing its self-given role as the world's civilizing and stabilizing force. A hundred years would pass before it finally exhausted its Treasury and lost its empire in the Second World War.

The United States assumed Britain's role as the world's superpower in 1945. But now it, too, faces exhausting drains on is Treasury, manpower and political will as a result of the original sin of attempting a gunpoint democratization of Afghanistan. Battered further by catastrophic forays into Iraq, Liby and Syria, millions of Americans are questioning their country's rightful role in the world. Abut half of American adults say the U.S. "has mostly failed in achieving its goals there," according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, while only about a third say it has succeeded. Another 16 percent say they do not know.

Now, President Donald Trump is said to be shifting back to his view that the war is a "total disaster" and considering a troop withdrawal. But would disengagement from afghanistan herald a new era of isolationism? At first glance, it would seem so. Trump not only proclaims Washington's meddling in the Middle East and South Asia a waste of time, lives and money but also regularly questions the entire edifice of the bedrock U.S.-European alliances that have kept the world from sliding into a nuclear world war for the past three-quarters of a century. His "America first" proclamations seem synonymous with a go-it-alone, Fortress America doctrine.

Yet many see a darker consequence to Trump's strategies. A complete withdrawal from Afghanistan would leave the fractious nation to the intrigues of a theocratic Iran, a rising China and especially Vladimir Putin's Russia, not to mention Pakistan and India, in yet another iteration of the 200-year-old "Great Game" for influence in the region. And while Trump questions the value of NATO and the European Union, he and his advisers have championed other Kremlin designs on the West, notably by backing the U.K.'s Brexit vote and the rise of other nationalist "blood and soil" parties across Europe.

To the foreign policy establishments of Washington and Western Europe, Trump's policies are not isolationist but treacherous, undermining the structures that have kept the peace for 73 years. Congress showed its displeasure by sending the president veto-proof legislation to impose new sanctions on Russia and warning him not to fire special counsel Robert Mueller.

But does the desire for military disengagement from an unwinnable Afghan war signal a sensible recalculation of American strategies of something worse? World leaders from Kabul to Berlin are waiting and worried.

Trump, Meet Quagmire

Almost a decade ago, one of America's longtime experts on Afghanistan forecast a horrendous scenario if the Taliban kept gaining ground in the war: An emergency evacuation of U.S. personnel from Kabul that would make the helicopter-borne escapes from the American Embassy in South Vietnam look easy.

The prediction of Kabul's collapse was premature—by years. The 2009 op-ed piece by Thomas Johnson, a research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, predicted the rout could come as early as 2012 if U.S. strategy didn't change. Six years later, after dramatic troop reductions, the U.S. is still holding on in Afghanistan, but the prognosis is ever more gloomy. According to some sources, President Donald Trump is reverting to his longtime position that the war is a failure. Others doubt he ever abandoned it.

"What the fuck are we doing there?" Trump snarled when H.R. McMaster, his now departed national security adviser, proposed a revised military strategy in the summer of 2017, according to Fear, the Bob Woodward book about the president. Trump grumbled to his then-aide Rob Porter that Afghanistan was "a disaster. It's never going to be a functioning democracy. We ought to just exit completely," according to Woodward.

Regardless, in August 2017, Trump was talked into an open-ended commitment and 4,000 more troops for Afghanistan, bringing the total to more than 14,000. There are also nearly 27,000 contractors working for the U.S., about 10,000 of which are U.S. citizens.

October 7, 2018, marked the 17th anniversary of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. It is America's longest war, and though hardly its most deadly—the Vietnam conflict took 58,200 American military lives—it's been by far the most costly: Right now the U.S. is spending roughly $50 billion a year on military operations in Afghanistan, with estimates for the total cost of the war to date ranging from $841 billion to $1.07 trillion (when the cost of Veterans Affairs care is figured in). Official Pentagon numbers are far lower.

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America's longest war: Troops in Kandahar province, September 2012. TONY KARUMBA/AFP/GettyImages

And then there are the costs to the troops. The exact numbers for how many men and women have served only in Afghanistan, and how many times, are hard to come by, but according to a recent Rand study, 2.77 million service members have served on 5.4 million deployments across the world since the 9/11 attacks, mostly in the Middle East and South Asia, "with soldiers from the Army accounting for the bulk of them." By the end of July, 2,372 military service members had died in Afghanistan, with 20,232 wounded in action, the Pentagon reported. But according to Brown University's Costs of War project, "At least 970,000 veterans have some degree of officially recognized disability as a result of the wars" in Afghanistan and Iraq (where most U.S. troops were withdrawn in 2011).

Afghan civilians have had it far worse, of course. By mid-2016, the combined death toll among Afghans and Pakistanis living in the combat theaters was 31,000 dead and more than 183,000 seriously wounded, according to the Brown project.

After U.S. Special Forces and CIA teams ran the Taliban out of Kabul 17 years ago, Washington had grandiose dreams of bringing peace and democracy to Afghanistan, which has been torn by armed conflict since the 1979 Soviet invasion, and, long before that, by three wars spanning 80 years with Imperial Britain. But victory is no longer Washington's objective. By 2017, its goal was to bomb the Sunni extremists into peace talks and a possible power-sharing regime with the shaky government of President Ashraf Ghani. A year later, however, it's clear that strategy has failed. The Taliban, buoyed by startling battlefield successes, including increasingly easy entrée to Kabul with devastating suicide attacks, coupled with Ghani's growing unpopularity, will now talk only about a complete withdrawal of troops, most experts say, before addressing any issues related to a power-sharing deal with Kabul.

The Pentagon and State Department "are trying to negotiate some sort of face-saving deal with the Taliban," said Thomas Joscelyn, senior editor of the Long War Journal, which has closely monitored Islamic militant activities since Al Qaeda's September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. "They desperately want the Taliban to say, in some language, hey, it's okay for you to leave. And the Taliban just wants us out, that's what they have reiterated over and over again. They want us out."

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Afghanistan exit strategy? Washington is looking for a face-saving deal with the Taliban, says one analyst. SAUL LOEB/AFP Images

All of which, according to the Washington foreign-policy rumor mill, has led Trump to conclude once more that the war is a lost cause. The president, it's said, wants to announce a timetable for a troop withdrawal after the November midterm elections, a drawdown that would begin in 2020. But no one seems to be pushing now for either a quick pullout or a greater military involvement in Afghanistan, said Anthony Cordesman, a longtime adviser to the State and Defense departments on Iraq and Afghanistan. And with a new commander having just arrived in Kabul and conducting his own assessment, Trump has reason to wait, rather than act.

"The president doesn't have to come to grips with any of this for at least several months" said Cordesman, now holder of the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "There are reasons not to—midterm elections in the U.S., elections scheduled in Afghanistan, peace talks are still at least possible, and winter will reduce the military pressure." Also, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's long awaited appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as the State Department's new special envoy on Afghanistan was not finalized until September 21. Khalilzad, a highly respected former ambassador to Kabul, is expected to pursue negotiations with the Taliban..

"My guess would be that there's no voice out there pushing hard on Afghanistan relative to all the other issues the administration faces," Cordesman said. But if Trump did decide to act, he added, "I think you're going to see two things: a relatively rapid phasedown rather than an immediate withdrawal—and a pretty serious pushback against any kind of large refugee acceptance or Afghan immigration."

The White House declined Newsweek 's repeated requests to discuss the president's thinking on Afghanistan.

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In country: U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (C) shakes hands upon arriving at a Resolute Support Mission (RSM) base in Kabul on September 27, 2017. THOMAS WATKINS/AFP/Getty Images

Since Trump is famously volatile and, by many accounts, gets talked out of rash decisions, it's difficult to predict what he'll ultimately do, every expert on the war cautioned. "He was staunchly for the pullout just prior to last year's announcement (of more troops)," a serving intelligence officer noted, speaking on terms of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. "He then did a 180, so it's hard to say exactly where things are going to go." Plus, he added, top military brass can stymie any abrupt Trump order to abandon Afghanistan by arguing that the new U.S. commander there, General Scott Miller, needs time to write his own military assessment for the White House. "That's something that they always ask for," said the intelligence officer. It's a foot-dragging technique that the military has used for a decade to help stave off the inclinations of President Barack Obama and now Trump to withdraw. "It's not mission creep, but calendar creep," the officer said. "The next thing you know, it's another year."

Groundhog Day

A somber new National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan, completed in August, sources say, but still under wraps, could give Trump cover to pivot back to getting out. "Every NIE on Afghanistan has been gloomy for many years," former director of national intelligence James Clapper told Newsweek. But this one is said to be even more pessimistic, highlighting Taliban gains over the past year and the Ghani regime's unpopularity and endemic corruption. "It's a devastating document," said a source who has discussed the NIE's findings with a top administration official, because it will say the continuing stalemate "is a victory for the insurgents." And Trump, the source added, "will go ape shit" because it will confirm his urge to "get the hell out."

Officially a product of U.S. intelligence, but in reality deeply influenced by the State Department, Pentagon and White House, top secret NIE's are 3D snapshots of a current situation in a country with a look at what's to come. Over many decades, officials have managed to tilt such reports into preconceived conclusions, such as the George W. Bush administration's infamous report on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (which turned out to be nonexistent). Officials also commonly leak parts of an NIE to the press to buttress their positions. Trump may well declassify segments that reinforce his desire to get out. But he will face resistance from inside his government.

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Is time on the side of the Taliban? Afghan Taliban militants celebrate ceasefire on the second day of Eid in the outskirts of Jalalabad on June 16, 2018. NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images

The State Department's position is that the U.S. and coalition forces are winning. "Taliban attacks against Afghan population centers have failed to take and hold urban areas and instead resulted in heavy casualties for the attacking Taliban fighters," a spokesperson said, on condition of anonymity, because she was not authorized to put her name on the statement. She credited "an ever increasing capability of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces," which "remain in control of all provincial capitals."

Outside experts say the Taliban's strength has ballooned from 25,000 to 75,000 fighters in recent years. "It has 17 percent of popular support," said Johnson, author of Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict. "Mao would say that's a definite win." According to a U.S. government report, by mid-2017, "the Afghan government controlled about 60 percent of Afghan territory, a 6 percent reduction of the amount it controlled at that same point in 2016." The figures have worsened since then, Johnson said.

But the Pentagon will push back against any report rationalizing a complete Afghan withdrawal, close observers say.

The military is "drinking their own Kool-Aid about Afghanistan," said a counterinsurgency expert who advises the administration. "They think it is going well."

"Everybody except for the generals knows that time is not on our side," said the intelligence officer. "It's not on Kabul's side. It's on the Taliban's side." Said another longtime observer: "The intelligence agencies think the war is a dismal failure."

Jason Campbell, until recently the Pentagon's country director of Afghanistan, cautions that "the intel assessment on anything is always going to be sort of on one end of the spectrum, as the most, if not pessimistic, then certainly the most guarded, whereas the commander's in-theater assessment tends to be on the other side of the spectrum, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle."

But Seth Jones, a former senior Pentagon adviser on Afghanistan, said that "key elements of the Pentagon and the intelligence community" would rightly resist any call for a retreat from Kabul because they know "what would happen with a Taliban victory."

"One, if the U.S. were to walk away, I think you'd see a collapse of the broader NATO commitment to Afghanistan," said Jones, now director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "Two, I think it would have a huge morale impact in Afghanistan among both Afghans and the government at large—almost a near panic if the U.S. were to decide to leave, because its major backer is gone." Laurel Miller, a former State Department acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, also now at Rand, concurs. "The consensus view is an abrupt withdrawal would lead to a collapse of the government."

Catastrophe

"The exit is not going to be pretty," said Johnson, who has been researching and writing on Afghanistan for over 30 years. The government would quickly fall without U.S. and NATO backing, he and other experts say. "Ghani himself said on 60 Minutes that the government would fall in six months. I think that's a gross exaggeration," said Johnson. "I think that it would fall within six days. The Afghan National Defense Forces would go away immediately without the internationals there. It will retreat into the wilderness and the Taliban might walk into Kabul without firing a shot, just as they did in the fall of 1996 when they initially took power." Most other experts put the survival of the Ghani regime without U.S. and other foreign backing longer than that—but only six months at best.

"Some areas would fall under Taliban control rather quickly, but other areas may stay free from the Taliban's grasp for a longer time," said Joscelyn. "The bottom line is that the government would be forced to play defense on many more fronts, and it isn't clear how long it could hold off the insurgents. This wouldn't end well."

Just the start of a U.S.-NATO pullout could set off a cascade of horrifying events akin the the chaotic helicopter departures from Saigon as North Vietnamese troops closed in on the capital in April 1975, experts say. Or Mogadishu, where U.S. troops were overcome by Somali insurgents in the events dramatized in the movie Blackhawk Down. Then again, previous withdrawals of U.S. troops from their peak strength of 100,000 did not provoke panic in Kabul.

"Look, in the grand scheme of things, the South Asia strategy could ultimately fail, but it won't fail because the Taliban overwhelmed the Afghan Security Forces," said Campbell, now an associate policy researcher at the Rand Corporation. "They don't have armor and regular forces like the Viet Cong did. They don't have artillery, they don't have air power or support." A collapse will come when Afghans have lost complete faith in their government and no longer have American and NATO forces to bail them out.

But with NATO and U.S. troop levels already so diminished, the threat of reducing their presence to virtually zero could prompt as many as 30,000 Afghans to storm airports to escape or try to head overland to neighboring countries, said the intelligence officer, a veteran of the war there. U.S. and foreign troops, contractors and embassy personnel would have to be bused or helicoptered to revved up C-17 or C-130 cargo planes at the U.S. air bases at Bagram, about 30 miles from the capital, or Kandahar, 300 miles away. Emergency evacuations—via highways long under assault by the insurgents—would be fraught. They would probably require "the 82nd Airborne Brigade or something to come and secure the route," said the intelligence officer. "Then you'd have to just get whatever Air Force assets you could to land at Bagram." From there, American and other foreigners would have to be airlifted to places like Oman, Qatar, Bahrain (home of the U.S. 5th Fleet) or even as far away as Europe. "You wouldn't want to have them have to fly too far one way, because they are going to have to empty people and turn right back around," the intelligence officer said.

"We're not there yet, but it's gonna get interesting," said Seth Jones, who served as a top liaison between the the Pentagon and the U.S. Special Operations Command in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011.

The State Department spokesperson declined to discuss any evacuation specifics, saying only, on condition of anonymity that "every effort is made to protect our personnel and prepare for all contingencies at every U.S. mission around the world." A former senior CIA official said, "There is always an evacuation or bug-out plan in place while operating in a war zone—in fact, it is a requirement."

But there is little doubt about the aftermath of a quick exit. "If the Taliban were to win in Afghanistan...it would be a massive boost to the jihadist movement that has suffered heavy blows in Iraq and Syria," said Jones. "This would be a huge boost, considering the historical significance of Afghanistan as the region where the jihad was, in part, born." There are "indications," he said, that Osama Bin Laden's successor. Ayman al-Zawahiri, is "there already, or at least, has at least been in Afghanistan."

Such nightmare scenarios may yet persuade Trump to back away again from abandoning Afghanistan completely, opting instead for a "lighter footprint" that relies far more on CIA or even private mercenary counterinsurgency operations as advocated by controversial Blackwater founder Erik Prince and others. According to the Woodward book, the CIA has a 3,000-strong force of Afghan fighters in the field.

But Trump is not the only party at the table. The Taliban has a major say about the future, too.

"Insurgency experts agree that a stalemate is actually a victory for the rebels, especially when foreign powers are involved," said Johnson. "And history suggests that a foreign power's public usually will not support a bloody stalemate for an indefinite period of time.

"The Taliban knows this," Johnson adds. "It's fond of saying, 'The Americans have the watches, but we have the time.'"

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect last name for General Scott Miller, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan. In addition, because of a typographical error, the story originally said the civilian death toll of the Afghanistan war was 3,000 instead of 31,000.

Donald Trump's Desire to 'Get the Hell Out' of Afghanistan Amid Taliban Gains Could Lead to Catastrophe