For a president with few tangible foreign policy accomplishments under his belt, Afghanistan had come to look something like a bright spot.
His nuclear talks with North Korea have proved fruitless; his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has produced no concessions from Tehran; Palestinians declared his Middle East peace plan dead on arrival; and a trade deal with China looks more unlikely every day.
But while President Donald Trump has not achieved his goal of a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, he has drawn down thousands of U.S. troops and struck a deal with the Taliban intended to pave the way for a complete exit and an end to the 19-year conflict.
Now the uproar over U.S. intelligence showing that Russia paid bounties for the killings of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is renewing focus on a conflict that had drifted to the political back burner and turning what had been a qualified success story for the president into at least a short-term political disaster.
What remains to be seen is whether, and how, the episode might affect Trump’s future plans. The military recently finished drawing down troops in Afghanistan from about 14,000 last fall to roughly 8,600. That is the minimum level that military commanders say allows them to prevent the Taliban and other radical fighters from overrunning the shaky, U.S.-backed Afghan government in Kabul.
But with the November election coming, military officials say they are braced for Trump to announce at any time his intention to pull thousands more troops from the country before then.
One person familiar with the president’s thinking said he had repeatedly spoken of having all U.S. soldiers out of the country by the end of the year. That prospect may become even more likely now that the United States’ continuing presence in Afghanistan has badly stung a president who lost patience with the U.S. mission there long ago but for years has found himself pressured to stay by congressional and military leaders invoking the specter of another attack in the mold of Sept. 11.
The debate over what Trump officials knew about the intelligence on Russian bounties and when is “ignoring the bigger picture here,” said Dan Caldwell, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative group that opposes U.S. troop deployments overseas. “The bigger problem,” he added, “is that by leaving our troops not only in places like Afghanistan but also in Iraq and Syria, we make it easier for our adversaries like Russia, Iran and nonstate actors like al-Qaida to bleed us on the cheap.”
Trump has called stories about the bounties “a made up Fake News Media Hoax” and studiously avoided commenting on the substance of the intelligence, including how it could change his policies toward either Russia or Afghanistan. But however willing he may be to overlook or downplay Russian aggression worldwide as he seeks to thaw relations with Moscow, it seems likely that the political grief he has suffered will only fuel his desire to withdraw troops from the country.
Trump’s patience with the conflict has been steadily waning in recent months, and he was particularly angry after two U.S. soldiers were killed when a member of Afghanistan’s security forces opened fire on U.S. troops during a joint patrol in early February. Days later, Trump, who has often remarked on the burden of writing military condolence letters, traveled to Dover Air Force Base to witness the return of the soldiers’ remains, a somber nighttime ceremony chillingly punctured by a widow’s desperate screams.
The recently published book by Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton confirms what has become increasingly obvious. Bolton recounts numerous instances when Trump, making liberal use of expletives, asked his exasperated advisers when he could be finished with the country. “We’ve got to get out of there,” Bolton recalls Trump saying in March 2019.
Trump took a key step in that direction Feb. 29, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a Taliban leader signed an agreement in Qatar under which the U.S. would begin a phased troop withdrawal in exchange for a halt in Taliban attacks on U.S. forces and the beginning of political talks between the insurgent group and the Afghan government.
The signing came just days after officials say intelligence about the Russian bounties appeared in Trump’s daily intelligence briefing. Some Trump officials were concerned that the intelligence could jeopardize the Taliban deal. Whether for that reason or others, officials say Trump was not verbally briefed about it at the time.
That agreement has been plagued with setbacks, including an unwelcome increase in Taliban attacks on Afghan targets, an exchange of prisoners between the Taliban and the Afghan government that has taken months longer than expected, and an Afghan election with disputed results that paralyzed the country’s government.
In one sign that Trump is determined to press ahead, Pompeo spoke by video conference Monday with the Taliban’s deputy and chief negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, “to discuss implementation of the U.S.-Taliban agreement,” according to a State Department spokeswoman.
“The secretary made clear the expectation for the Taliban to live up to their commitments, which include not attacking Americans,” added the spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus. (There is no indication that U.S. intelligence has tied Russian bounties to any attacks on Americans since the agreement was signed or that the Taliban’s senior leadership was aware of them.)
All the while, however, U.S. troops have been on their way out. And while Afghanistan continues to suffer horrific attacks like a May assault on a maternity ward in Kabul, there is little evidence that American voters, whose support for the war has long been waning, feel any less safe.
“Certainly there’s a political resonance for the notion that, after all these years, President Trump will end the war that other presidents were unwilling to end,” said Richard Fontaine, chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based policy group.
Fontaine cautions against a withdrawal of troops, reminiscent of the U.S. exit from Iraq in 2011, that could allow militants to rampage and terrorists to find safe haven as al-Qaida did in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks.
For now, that view has significant support in Congress. On Wednesday, the House Armed Services Committee voted 45-11 to approve a bipartisan amendment to an annual defense authorization bill that would restrict funds for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan below the level of 8,000.
One of the amendment’s co-sponsors, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking House Republican, warned in a statement that “the U.S.-Taliban deal allows for premature troop withdrawal that is not conditions-based.”
A Senate effort from the opposite perspective met a swift rebuke the same day. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. and one of Congress’ leading noninterventionist voices, co-sponsored an amendment with Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan within a year. The Senate voted 60-33 to table the amendment.