Trump’s Afghan gamble is about to begin - analysis

When the war in Afghanistan began, it initially looked like a quick conflict - of the 'Powell Doctrine' variety. A conflict with a clear goal.

August 19, 2019 01:23
3 minute read.
A member of the Taliban holds a flag in Kabul, Afghanistan

A member of the Taliban holds a flag in Kabul, Afghanistan June 16, 2018. The writing on the flag reads: 'There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah'. (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMMAD ISMAIL)

US President Donald Trump wants to end the “endless wars,” which he says have burdened the US for decades and become a sunk cost with diminishing returns. He and others who have sought to work out a deal in Afghanistan, such as envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, are focused on technical details after a recent round of talks with the Taliban.

There are groups who want to derail this effort or to push for a faster US withdrawal. A bombing in Afghanistan over the weekend targeted a wedding and killed more than 60. What kind of murderers target a wedding – and why? It appears linked to the jihadist hatred of the Shi’ite Hazara minority, a form of genocidal loathing for minorities that links many groups sharing ideology with Islamic State, al-Qaeda and parts of the Taliban.

But internal Afghan problems are not Trump’s main concern. He would like the war to end by the 2020 elections. He tweeted about the “19-year war” on August 17. The problem is that the talks with the Taliban will once again put the US in the awkward position of telegraphing its demands even before the “deal” is done.

That was one problem with the Iran nuclear deal: US adversaries knew that the administration desperately wanted the deal. This is quite an achievement for the Taliban, which was supposedly defeated in 2002 during the brief war in Afghanistan that followed the September 11 terror attacks. But they bided their time and fought and fought, and have clawed their way back.

There are larger issues at stake as well. Trump is involved in high stakes brinkmanship with North Korea and Iran, both prongs of his foreign policy or “doctrine” that combines carrots, sticks, bluster and innovative approaches that sometimes seem to border more on chaos for chaos’ sake than an explanatory, long-term goal.

That has been one problem in Syria, with Washington saying it would stay in Syria as leverage against Iran, then saying it would leave and then saying again that it would stay. At least America’s adversaries don’t know what America is really up to, but there is also a sense that sometimes the administration lacks clarity as well. On Afghanistan however, there is clarity: the “endless war” should end.

There is growing consensus among political leaders that America’s “endless wars” or “forever wars” should end, and even though experts warn that this is not a security policy, the administration wants to move forward. US Democrats who are running for president also seem keen on ending the conflict.

Pete Buttigieg, who served in the war in Afghanistan, has pointed out that those born after 9/11 will soon be serving in this conflict, which began because of 9/11. That’s like people born after the Vietnam War started serving in Vietnam. It is a stark reminder of how long the US has been in Afghanistan. Documentaries about the war, like Restrepo, are now almost 10 years old.

When the war in Afghanistan began, it initially looked like a quick conflict, of the Powell Doctrine variety: a conflict with a clear goal. But that morphed into the Bush Doctrine and the concept of small wars or the “long war,” a global struggle against terrorism.

The question that US officials are asking therefore is whether leaving Afghanistan now will result in a vacuum that more extreme groups such as ISIS can exploit, or whether the Taliban has “moderated” and will keep the more extreme jihadists away. Perhaps the Taliban has changed and no longer embodies the horrid policies of the late 1990s that led to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and attacks on Shi’ites, as well as the hosting of al-Qaeda.

Certainly US adversaries such as Iran and Russia will be watching. Other historical US allies who have hedged their bets regarding Iran, such as Turkey and Qatar, will also be watching. Qatar is helping to host the Afghan talks. Trump has the rest of fall 2019 to see if his gamble can work – and not fall.

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