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In an election dominated by concerns about the coronavirus, the economic recession and racial justice, the candidates aren’t talking much about America’s longest war. But with former acting intelligence chief Richard Grenell and retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, national security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, scheduled to speak Wednesday at the Republican National Convention, America’s nearly 19-year conflict in Afghanistan may get some fleeting attention.
The policy differences between President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are stark, with one notable exception: Trump’s Afghanistan policy looks a lot like the one Biden has always wanted.
As vice president in 2009, Biden put up strong but ultimately futile resistance as senior military leaders urged President Barack Obama to deploy tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan. The military brass won that debate, and by August 2010 there were 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan engaged in an ambitious counterinsurgency and nation-building mission.
Biden had argued instead for a small counterterrorist force focused on preventing al-Qaida from regaining its foothold in Afghanistan. That option became known in national security circles as “CT-lite.”
Now, 11 years and about 1,500 casualties later, Trump is reducing the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to a force of fewer than 5,000 troops, consisting largely of a special operations counterterrorist force plus some military advisers whose mission has been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Having failed to defeat the Taliban insurgency, the U.S. government has negotiated a peace deal with the militants and is now waiting for talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government to begin.
To judge from his campaign website, Biden’s approach to Afghanistan has changed little since he argued for the CT-lite option in 2009. “Biden will end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which have cost us untold blood and treasure,” reads the brief reference to Afghanistan on the website. “As he has long argued, Biden will bring the vast majority of our troops home from Afghanistan and narrowly focus our mission on Al-Qaeda and ISIS.”
Trump says much the same thing. “We are ending the era of endless wars,” he told cadets graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in June. “It is not the duty of U.S. troops to solve ancient conflicts in faraway lands that many people have never even heard of.” Trump reportedly pressed the Pentagon to pull out as many U.S. troops as possible before Election Day in November, before settling for a figure of about 4,000.
Given the small size of that force, it “would be fair to say” that if Biden wins the election, Trump will essentially bequeath to him the basis of a “CT-lite” strategy, said Seth Jones, director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There are a lot of similarities.”
That Biden and his closest national security advisers have stayed consistent regarding Afghanistan should come as no surprise, according to a former senior defense official. “It’s hard to imagine that they would have changed from that position, given the ensuing failures of the last 12 years,” he said.
A Biden administration’s Afghanistan policy is likely to reflect two realities: first, that since the former vice president first argued for “CT-lite,” the war there has become the longest conflict in U.S. history with no battlefield victory in sight; second, that Afghanistan is no longer the foreign policy priority for the United States that it was in 2009. Because the former vice president is so associated with a very narrow definition of U.S. interests in Afghanistan, it’s also unclear how hard a Biden administration would be willing to fight for some of the United States’ secondary causes, such as women’s rights, in that country.
“If a President Biden comes in … Afghanistan is not going to be a very high priority to begin with,” said Larry Goodson, an Afghanistan expert at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. Goodson cited the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic collapse and the nationwide protests of police violence against Black people, as well as the threats posed by major world powers like China and Russia, as topics likely to command a greater degree of the new president’s attention.
Based on the former vice president’s previous statements and policy positions, a Biden administration would likely conclude that it would be a mistake to completely withdraw from Afghanistan, according to Jones. Instead, a Biden team might look closely at “a heavy focus on diplomatic negotiations and a relatively small military presence that is geared toward counterterrorism operations,” Jones said.
The rare overlap between the Trump and Biden policies on Afghanistan is partly the result of what Jonathan Schroden, director of the Center for Stability and Development at research and analysis organization CNA, described as “an increasing recognition across all corners of the foreign policy establishment that the return on investment that the U.S. is getting from the security perspective from the Afghanistan mission is … just not worth it anymore relative to challenges like China, climate change [and] global pandemics.”
Meanwhile, even with U.S. troops still fighting and dying in Afghanistan, the American public has largely tuned the war out, meaning that the political costs associated with a withdrawal — even one that resulted in more Taliban depredations — would be small, according to Schroden, who has made more than a dozen trips to the country. “Let’s face it, Americans don’t care what’s happening in Afghanistan,” he said. “Most Americans don’t even know that we have any troops there. They’ve completely stopped paying attention.”
It takes something extraordinary, such as the recent stories that Russian intelligence operatives were offering the Taliban bounties to attack U.S. soldiers, to move Afghanistan even briefly to the top of the news. (The Russian government has denied the allegations.)
The remaining political risk for either Trump or Biden of a near or total withdrawal would be twofold, according to Schroden. The longer-term risk is that “if you get out of Afghanistan and you don’t do it in a really delicate and careful way, you are increasing the risk of a potential homeland attack,” Schroden said. While the chance of such an attack would be low, “it will be greater than zero,” he added, “and so if that were to ever happen, then the historians trace that back to your decision, then that’s a major blemish on your legacy as president.”
The shorter-term risk would be the opposition that might be expected from influential “foreign policy establishment elites” who have “sunk costs with respect to Afghanistan,” Schroden said. “Some part of their career has been made or dedicated to those problems, and so they feel some pride of ownership associated with it,” and as a result they “view Afghanistan as being probably more valuable than it really is.”
One member of Washington’s foreign policy establishment who is often mentioned as a likely Biden defense secretary is Michèle Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2012. Speaking Aug. 6 to the annual Aspen Security Forum, Flournoy struck a balance between emphasizing the United States’ national interest in the counterterrorism mission and ensuring that other U.S. goals are not sacrificed.
“We have to be very careful in terms of, first of all, remembering what our core objective still is, which is to prevent Afghanistan from being a haven for terrorist strikes against the United States, and so there is a counterterrorist force that is very important to keep there until we have a true peace,” Flournoy said. She added that while she didn’t think “we want to be there forever,” with the Afghan government and the Taliban on the verge of negotiations, “now is not the time to do anything precipitous.”
However, she said, any withdrawal before a peace deal is “solidified” would also be a mistake “because we’d basically be pulling the carpet out from under Afghan government partners, and Afghan women, Afghan civil society, that we’ve fought so hard to help achieve a place at the table.”
It’s unclear whether Flournoy’s views will hold sway when so many in Washington want the United States to wash its hands of Afghanistan as soon as possible. Trump’s attitude toward Afghanistan has been “Get this off my plate,” Goodson said, adding that the president likely would have been happy to fully withdraw from the country, but Pentagon resistance meant a small force of about 4,000 troops remains.
Those troops are divided between a “train, advise and assist” mission to improve the Afghan security forces and a counterterrorism mission to ensure that al-Qaida does not return to Afghanistan and to keep the Islamic State’s Afghanistan branch on the back foot. While a “complete abandonment” of the train, advise and assist mission is unlikely, “the reason to still be there is the counterterrorism [mission],” Goodson said.
In any case, Afghanistan policy will likely stay the same, “at least for a year, while the president focuses on bigger issues like COVID-19,” he said.
Whether a Biden administration would choose to stick with Trump’s policy or to tweak it, the new president would be able to pursue that policy starting in January with a “more energetic” staff “because they’re at the front end of their service,” Goodson said. With the Trump administration having “gutted” the State Department, according to Goodson, an incoming Biden administration would also bring with it “a return of high-level personnel that are really capable.” Combined with what Goodson said his contacts had suggested would be a better-functioning and more “professional” National Security Council, having a more effective group of personnel would mean “Biden could implement a policy that might be similar to Trump’s policy, but better than Trump could,” he said.
Of course, much will depend on the timing and direction of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, according to most observers. Those talks are part of the peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban, and a successful completion of them would commit Washington to withdraw all military forces from Afghanistan. However, those talks have been repeatedly delayed, which in turn is stalling the departure of U.S. forces.
An incoming Biden administration would likely experience “frustration” with the pace of the peace talks, said Jones. “The negotiations are going to be much more difficult than people will want them to be,” he said.
The Taliban’s obstinacy, combined with its battlefield gains in recent years, mean it is unlikely to settle for anything less than a dominant role in a future Afghan government. “They still want to be in charge,” Schroden said. “We should not kid ourselves about that.”
Whether the negotiators for the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani would agree to allow the Taliban to achieve such a degree of domination “depends greatly on how much pressure the U.S. is willing to put on them,” Schroden said. “Left to their own devices, they will absolutely not accept that.”
The Ghani government appears to be counting on Trump losing the election, as demonstrated by its “stalling” of some prisoner releases called for in the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, Schroden said. “It’s all quite obviously designed to drag this out past the [U.S.] election,” he said. “They appear to have put a lot of eggs in the basket of ‘Maybe a Biden policy will look different than the Trump policy.’”
But those hopes are likely to be misplaced, Schroden said, because they are missing the point that the United States “has one primary national interest in Afghanistan, and it’s counterterrorism,” which the peace deal ostensibly protects by committing the Taliban to not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for terrorist attacks on the United States and its allies.
“The U.S. has so many bigger fish to fry at this point than Afghanistan,” he said. “The government there still thinks that they are more important to us than we are to them, and I don’t think they appreciate that that calculus shifted some time ago.”
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