In response to a journalist’s question Friday on the possible drawdown and total withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, President Donald Trump’s answer was sober: the truth.
In the wake of a historic peace accord between American and Taliban forces signed in late February, Trump was asked during a bill signing ceremony at the White House if he was afraid that the Taliban would overrun the Afghan government once American forces pulled out.
His answer? It’s possible.
“Well eventually, countries have to take care of themselves,” Trump began. “We can’t be there for the next — another 20 years. We’ve been there for 20 years. And we’ve been protecting the country, but we can’t be there for the next — eventually, they’re going to have to protect themselves. This should have been done a long time ago. You can only hold somebody’s hand for so long. We have to get back to running our country too.”
A follow-up question asked if the Afghan government would be capable of defending itself from a Taliban takeover.
The president answered, “I’ll let you know later. We’ll have to see what happens. I hope they are, but I don’t know. I can’t answer that question. It’s not supposed to happen that way, but it possibly will.”
The ambiguity in Trump’s statement accurately portrays this pivotal moment in the 18-year-long war.
But it also belies the frustration in American attempts to bring justice, peace and security to a largely lawless country while instituting a Western-style democracy among a populace that still maintains tribalism.
Trump’s statement and recent diplomatic actions are essentially a shot across the bow of the Afghan government to get its act together and be ready to move ahead on its own.
But the administration of President Ashraf Ghani is legitimately concerned that without the continued reliance on the U.S. military, its Afghan forces will be decimated leading to overthrow by the Taliban.
By all accounts, Trump’s use of diplomacy here is a shrewd and prudent tool to jumpstart Afghan self-reliance to determine what happens next.
But the outcomes do not look good.
The American withdrawal is contingent upon a fragile peace that the Taliban already appears to have broken. Just last week, U.S. forces launched airstrikes against the Taliban in Helmand province after Afghan forces came under attack from them.
The purpose of the war in Afghanistan has not always been clear. And despite America’s hard-fought efforts to prop up that nation and its military, billions of dollars have been wasted.
And lest we never forget the sacrifices of the 2,353 lives lost and more than 20,000 wounded in action.
Its government is corrupt — a kleptocracy that has taken advantage of its own people and wasted or stolen U.S. war finances. Poverty is systemic and on the rise. Life expectancy is 50 years of age. And the country’s infant mortality rate is the highest in the world.
The Taliban is a guerrilla insurgency that actively seeks to overthrow said government and replace it with Muslim Sharia law. Worse, the Taliban is sometimes supported in its efforts by local populations that either agree with it or are under duress to do so. And to this day the Taliban is still the world’s No. 1 one supplier of opium, producing 85 percent of the world’s supply, to the tune of $200 million per year.
Regrettably, all of this is true even after 20 years of American interventionism.
Many U.S. veterans of the Afghan campaign’s war on terror are understandably torn between victory that honors the sacrifices of brothers and sisters injured and killed, and the continuation of a war dogged by nihilism and tone-deaf strategies that have driven it into a stalemate.
“Let’s go home,” former Army Reservist Chris Collins told The Associated Press. “We can’t stay there forever. They don’t want us there. It’s no different today than it was 18 years ago, essentially.”
The president deserves credit for recognizing that and acting on it.
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