Todd Johnson / Aug. 3, 2018

The Afghanistan Exit May Be Happening

The Trump administration tried escalating, but it's losing patience with results.

With his announcement last August that the United States would bolster its troop commitment in Afghanistan and not commit to a withdrawal timeline, President Donald Trump hoped that significant progress would be made against Taliban forces in 2017-18. Unfortunately, that has not been the case and it looks as if his patience with the whole endeavor is beginning to wane.

Last Friday’s report about Trump administration officials now advocating for Afghan forces to leave the sparsely populated areas of the country to consolidate gains, coupled with top U.S. diplomats holding face-to-face talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar a week ago without Afghan government officials present, are strong indicators that the longest war in the history of the republic may be coming to a close.

While military commanders say in public there is reason for “cautious optimism,” the facts on the ground belie their feelings. By most objective measures the change in strategy hasn’t worked.

According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) quarterly document released a couple of days ago, the Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) have once again failed to improve control over sovereign districts, population, and territory. Instead, district and territorial control became slightly more contested between the government and insurgency forces. However, more distressing than the lack of gains on the ground were the findings that the Afghan government may be going back to “business as usual” and “simply checking the box” when it comes to fighting corruption. Is it any wonder that Trump is looking for a workable solution to extract American troops from the region?

He can take some solace in the fact that he tried to modify the strategy, but the mission is one that simply can’t be achieved with the current level of resources. Over the last year since the change in strategy was announced, the Department of Defense has aggressively taken the fight to insurgent forces. The amount of airstrikes in Afghanistan by U.S. coalition nations has gone up under the Trump administration. As a matter of fact, this year airstrikes are on pace to reach record highs, but sadly, the expenditure of munitions has only created an impasse of epic proportions.

Steve Brooking, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s (UNAMA) director of peace and reconciliation, recently described the situation in the war-torn state as a “mutually hurting stalemate.” Unfortunately, the situation doesn’t appear to have much chance of getting any better, so now is the time for the Trump administration to pursue trilateral peace negotiations and initiate the transition of operations to the Ashraf Ghani led Afghan government.

While some hawks are critical of such a move, the gridlock on the ground and in the diplomatic channels leaves very few options available. A U.S.-led political settlement is a much more achievable goal than a military victory, and more importantly, it enables the U.S. to exit the country and put critical military resources in other theaters around the world.

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