Trump’s decision creates opportunity for Afghans, if they can seize it

The Trump administration’s reported decision to withdraw up to half the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, if it holds, leaves numerous questions unanswered and policy in disarray.  

A possible U.S. withdrawal has sparked deep fears in Afghanistan and concerns among partner troop and aid contributors. It throws into stark relief the need for Afghan politicians to make choices that could save their country, or, alternatively, that could speed a disastrous spiral to chaos, if they fail to forge a unified way forward.

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The potential decision to cut U.S. forces in Afghanistan lacks specifics essential to turn a whim into a policy. Removing about 7,000 troops would leave about 8,000 US military forces in Afghanistan and a similar number of troops from other NATO nations. What would be the mission of the remaining forces? Would our allies agree to a mission shift and would they maintain their presence, especially given that they were not consulted ahead of the U.S. announcement?  

Currently, there are two interlocking military missions, counterterrorism and training of Afghan forces. At the end of the Obama administration, U.S. and allied forces of the proposed size could not handle both missions. U.S. training teams did not extend below corps level and could not cover all corps. U.S. officials were profoundly ignorant of the situation at which combat actually happened and had few teams available to coordinate critical air support for Afghan forces. So, what will the remaining forces be used for? Will the United States leave Afghan security forces largely unsupported in the field?  

What will happen to the international mission to support police forces (or the billions of dollars for economic assistance)? Will the United States neglect the primordial counterterrorism mission? Can the United States carry on the latter in a declining security situation? That seems unlikely.

Until the United States can answers these questions, we will not be able to lead our partners in designing a unified strategy. Does our NATO commitment to remain until 2024 still stand, or are we simply dropping a commitment made? How far can allies trust any new promises the United States may make? Will we see a stampede to the exit to avoid being left behind by the next U.S. decision?  

How the U.S. decision will impact the pursuit of peace is critical. The U.S.-championed efforts to facilitate a peace process via Special Envoy Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad have been widely welcomed. Even as Khalilzad undertakes a new round of visits, one must ask how can the U.S. effectively push for peace negotiations if it appears that it may cut forces without seeking any concession from the Taliban in return? The questions go on and on.  Tweet first and think later is a poor excuse for policymaking.

Answering these questions will take hard work inside the U.S. government, with allies and Afghan partners. In the meantime, Afghans are preparing for presidential elections in July 2019.  It is essential that Afghanistan emerge from that election with a strong government if Afghanistan is going to have any chance of standing up in the face of a U.S. troop drawdown and of protecting all that has been accomplished for education, women, health, democracy and the ending of terrorism. Past practice of Afghan politicians does not make one optimistic.

Perhaps one should be more charitable to Afghan politicians in view of the number of candidates in a U.S. presidential election. But, America has strong institutions to buffer such struggles, and Americans are not fighting an insurgency gaining ground at home. Afghanistan lacks these advantages. If Afghan political leaders repeat the past, they could too easily plunge their country into chaos.  

It is unlikely that America again would come to the rescue. An Afghan political crisis could provide the final provocation for President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he will 'temporarily hold off' on declaring Mexican drug cartels as terror organization House Judiciary Committee formally receives impeachment report Artist behind gold toilet offered to Trump sells banana duct-taped to a wall for 0,000 MORE to leave Afghanistan. After 18 years of effort, few Americans would quarrel deeply with such a decision, although a few who devoted so much effort to eliminating a base for terrorism and to supporting Afghan reformers and reforms would regret it deeply.

No foreign policy can avoid such a nightmare scenario.  Afghan political leaders will need to curb ambitions, rally around a small number of capable leaders with a chance of winning a significant victory, and reduce fraud sufficiently so that elections can produce a winner who can credibly claim a mandate.  

President Trump’s decision to reduce forces may be mitigated or even, for a time, rescinded. But the writing is on the wall. A successful Afghan election leading to a strong government could be a major factor in international belief that support for Afghanistan can succeed. Even if this does not occur, a strong Afghan government would have a chance of rallying the country to stand against its enemies.

The chances that Afghan politicians will overcome past habits and avoid a catastrophic election are, frankly, small. But if they do not, and lose their country as a result, the fault will be theirs.

Ronald E. Neumann was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan 2005-07 and returns frequently.

Earl Anthony Wayne, career ambassador (ret.) and Wilson Center public policy fellow, served from 2009-11 in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.