The U.S. will Remain a Major Player in Afghanistan Even Without Thousands of American Troops | Opinion

On the morning of March 22, Americans woke up to grim news. Two U.S. service members, operating alongside Afghan national security forces in the northern province of Kunduz, were killed in action during an anti-Taliban raid. The deaths bring the number of U.S. troop fatalities in Afghanistan this year to four and the total figure since the war began to 2,421. These casualties are a stark reminder that in the eighteenth year of a conflict first launched to eviscerate the Al-Qaeda network and its Taliban hosts, the U.S. remains stuck in the quicksand of a war that continues to take from us America's sons and daughters.

The Trump administration understands the American people want U.S. military involvement in the war to end sooner rather than later—certainly before any further lives are lost and additional taxpayer money is wasted. According to a YouGov survey published in October 2018, 61 percent of Americans—including 69 percent of veterans—would support a U.S. troop drawdown from Afghanistan if President Donald Trump ordered it. In part, the ongoing peace negotiations managed by U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad are designed to achieve exactly this goal.

Many analysts in Washington, D.C., however, are extraordinarily concerned that a withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan will translate into a loss of power, influence, and prestige in the country. They tar a potential withdrawal as a "retreat" or "abandonment" of Afghanistan. Less U.S. combat power on the ground is equated with less U.S. influence in general, perhaps to be superseded by countries like Pakistan, Iran, and Russia that don't have the interests of the Afghan people at heart. Call the troops home, the argument goes, and the United States will no longer have the pull to protect America's national security interests in the region.

While this is an appealing paradigm many in the Beltway subscribe too, its logic rests on a shaky foundation. U.S. national power is not exclusive to how many American troops are deployed, where they are stationed, or how long they are present in any given country. In fact, our continued troop presence often undermined our ability to pressure Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban because our troops were dependent on Pakistani resupply routes. One could argue that eliminating the need to use those routes not only lessons Pakistan's leverage in Afghanistan considerably, but would in fact, increase American economic and political power to stop Islamabad from undermining the stability of Afghanistan. We must recognize that the United States can conduct a strategic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and remain a major player in the country. The two are not mutually exclusive.

How can this possibly be the case? Simple: the U.S. military, as capable and professional as it is, is but one tool in America's extensive foreign policy toolkit.

This is particularly evident in Afghanistan, which continues to be the beneficiary of significant amounts of U.S. aid, extensive intelligence cooperation, and diplomatic assistance that provides the Afghan government with international legitimacy in a variety of diplomatic forums. None of this leverage will magically evaporate in the event of an American military departure. Indeed, with American soldiers no longer in the field participating in operations against Taliban fighters in remote corners of the country, the Trump administration could very well rediscover how much diplomatic, economic, and political ammunition the United States truly possesses in Afghanistan.

As the world's wealthiest and most politically powerful country on the planet, the United States is in an incredibly unique position to offer positive incentives to any government in Kabul to govern in a way that protects rather than undermines America's paramount counterterrorism objective in the region. None of Afghanistan's neighbors, certainly not a cash-strapped Pakistan with a staggering $96 billion debt, can compete with the weight of Washington soft-power. While a significant portion of Washington's $132 billion in reconstruction aid has been squandered through wasteful initiatives, misplaced priorities, and outright theft, the investment has wedded the Afghan government with the United States and provided Washington with significant clout. Afghan political figures will be averse to jeopardizing the economic and political relationships that will be crucial in the months and years after a comprehensive, intra-Afghan peace settlement.

Absent America's considerable effort over a span of nearly two decades, Afghanistan would not be the international priority it is today. The Afghan government continues to be the recipient of billions of dollars in international security assistance, money that would simply be unavailable were it not for U.S. attempts to cajole funds from countries as diverse as the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia. It is difficult to envision any Afghan president throwing all of this away when the alternatives to a long-term, strategically beneficial relationship with Washington are mediocre at best and destabilizing in the extreme.

None of this is to suggest that Afghanistan will be a land of eminent peace, harmony, and economic prosperity after a U.S. troop withdrawal. The Afghan people have been living in the middle of armed conflict for the last four decades. Despite the generosity of the international community, most prominently the United States, Afghanistan remains one of the least developed and most corrupt countries in the world. There remains a high likelihood that Afghan soldiers and civilians will continue to be killed by spoilers who are fundamentally opposed to a peace agreement. Nobody should expect Afghanistan to transform into the Central Asian version of Switzerland, where lawmakers from across the political spectrum engage in a healthy, civil debate in order to resolve political problems. Indeed, that U.S. officials in successive U.S. administrations believed the establishment of a democratic bastion in Afghanistan under Western tutelage was possible in the first place turned out to be the very example of baseless thinking.

As of this writing, we simply don't know where Afghanistan's peace negotiations are heading—let alone whether the ongoing discussions will result in a long-term peace accord that supports U.S. interests and the needs of the Afghan people. What we can say with reasonable certainty, however, is that the United States will continue to boast considerable influence in Afghanistan with or without thousands of U.S. soldiers performing kinetic operations on the ground. If concern about U.S. influence is the factor holding up the conclusion of an otherwise endless war, there is no need to worry.

U.S. foreign policy is about more than sending America's sons and daughters in uniform to hold the line in a conflict zone for an indeterminate period of time. U.S. global power and strategic influence is not solely based on when, how, and whether a president decides to deploy our troops.

Rear Admiral (ret) Michael E. Smith is a former Commander of Carrier Strike Group Three and the President of the American College of National Security Leaders.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

The U.S. will Remain a Major Player in Afghanistan Even Without Thousands of American Troops | Opinion | Opinion