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April 6, 2019

Trump ready to abandon allies in Afghanistan

Top Story

April 6, 2019

Henry Kissinger said there should be a “decent interval” between the US’s 1975 withdrawal from Vietnam and the communist takeover. Saigon fell shortly after the last US helicopters had left. Zalmay Khalilzad, Donald Trump’s Afghanistan envoy, is working on roughly the same script for Kabul.

By excluding the Afghan government from peace talks with the Taliban, the US looks as though it is preparing to cut and run. That would turn Mr Khalilzad into a poor man’s Henry Kissinger.

Yet Mr Trump is only delivering on his promise to pull out of America’s “endless wars”. That is no mean feat. Since at least 2004, when the US occupation of Iraq began to fall apart, American sentiment has been strongly in favour of disengaging from all foreign wars. Carrying out that desire requires a level of cold bloodedness few presidents can sustain. It means abandoning your friends to the enemy. The temptation is to try to shore up the client regime before leaving. Barack Obama attempted that in Afghanistan with his 100,000-troop surge. George W Bush did the same in Iraq. Both failed.

Mr Trump, on the other hand, does not suffer from moral squeamishness. Just as he is preparing to leave Syria’s Kurds to their fate at Turkey’s hands, he is willing to risk sacrificing Kabul to the Taliban. The problem for Mr Trump’s critics is that they do not have any better ideas. Having spent $1tn, lost more than 2,400 US lives, and after 18 years of trying, Afghanistan is no more stable today than when America ousted the Taliban in 2001. More of the same would be throwing good money after bad. It is nevertheless what the Pentagon always advises. It would be facile to blame Mr Trump for ignoring them.

The Vietnam parallel is stark. Then, like now, the US excluded its ally from the talks. Mr Kissinger called it “peace with honour”. The South Vietnam government did not see it that way. Mr Khalilzad has abandoned Washington’s pledge to conduct an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” process. It is all between him and the Taliban, which refuses to talk to the “puppet government” in Kabul. Then, like now, the insurgents controlled the countryside. Likewise, the US stepped up air strikes to improve its leverage. But Washington’s main aim in each case was plain: to exit with seemly haste. Mr Trump wants to pull out of Afghanistan before next year’s election. The proposed deal is simple: the Taliban will pledge not to host any terrorist attacks on America; the US, in turn, will bring its troops home.

Will history blame Mr Trump for cutting a deal with Islamists? Almost certainly. But the onus is on his critics to say what they would do differently. The choice is between most Democrats, who would also pull out — although, perhaps, in a more decorous way — and hawkish Republicans who want to win a war that is stubbornly unwinnable. They say the Taliban’s pledge will not be worth thepaper it is written on. That is true. But al-Qaeda and ISIS operate in many countries not occupied by the US.

Were the Taliban to harbour foreign terrorists again, US air strikes would rain down just as they do in Somalia, north Africa and elsewhere. Mr Trump is thus insulated from a US domestic backlash.

The real cost is to the US’s global standing. This week, Washington is hosting the 70th anniversary of Nato. Within hours of the 9/11 attacks, European countries invoked Nato’s mutual defence clause to come to America’s aid. More than 1,000 non-American Nato troops have died in Afghanistan. Yet Mr Khalilzad has excluded Europeans from his talks with the Taliban. Snubbing allies will come at a price. America’s reputation in the Middle East will suffer a further blow. So, too, will its standing in India, which correctly views the Taliban as a Pakistani tool. China will also take note. The US has spent the better part of a generation failing to stabilise a country of 35m people. America’s capacity to “shock and awe” has given way to fatigue.

That said, Mr Khalilzad is doing what the US wants him to do. He may even have reason to like the Vietnam parallel. Ending that war was how Mr Kissinger won his Nobel Peace Prize. Neither Mr Khalilzad nor Mr Trump are likely to pay a price for facilitating the return of the Taliban.

With special arrangements with Financial Times

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