President Trump’s aborted summit with Taliban leaders demonstrated his almost reckless eagerness to end the war in Afghanistan. The summit had been called by Mr. Trump on the basis of the outline of a deal — not an agreement — that had been negotiated by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
When the Taliban killed the fourth U.S. soldier in Afghanistan in two weeks, the Camp David summit was cancelled. Mr. Trump has since ordered an acceleration of military action against the Taliban which may be intended to force the Taliban to negotiate and compromise. To do so, our military action would have to inflict vastly more damage on it than it has in 18 years of war.
In 1969, President Nixon called for the “Vietnamization” of that war, to turn over responsibility for fighting to South Vietnamese forces. In 2002, President George W. Bush defined our goal for Afghanistan in the same terms as Nixon had set for “Vietnamization.” Many of us cringed because Mr. Bush had forgotten history and condemned us to repeat it. What is playing out regarding Afghanistan today is, with the exception we’ll get to in a minute, precisely what happened regarding Vietnam in 1973-75.
In the last Democratic debate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren said that she’d withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, deal or no deal. Former Vice President Joe Biden said that U.S. troops should come home except for bases in Pakistan. (We have none, and the Pakistanis will never permit us to establish any.)
Mayor Pete Buttigieg said, “If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Afghanistan, from Afghanistan, it’s that the best way not to be caught up in endless war is to avoid starting one in the first place.” He evidently doesn’t know that after the 9-11 attacks, when President Bush gave the Taliban the choice between surrendering bin Laden to us and war, they chose war.
The situation in Afghanistan doesn’t allow for that sort of ignorance and timorous thinking.
The Taliban are stronger now than at any point since 9-11. They control or contest control of most of Afghanistan and reportedly have as many as 100,000 fighters in the field. Al Qaeda, still the Taliban’s close ally, is resurgent there as is ISIS.
The Taliban are supplied and funded significantly by Russia and, to a lesser extent, by China and Iran. A few days after Mr. Trump cancelled the Camp David summit with them, “Taliban negotiators” went to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy for Afghanistan purportedly to ask the Russians to push us back into negotiations. Baloney. The Russian-Taliban talks were about sustaining Russian aid to increase the Taliban’s war-fighting capability.
Pakistan’s army and its ISI intelligence service have, since before 9-11, been the Taliban’s most trusted ally, providing money, training, intelligence and safe havens.
There are now about 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and about 5,000 coalition troops. Mr. Trump wants to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan before the 2020 election, but he declared the talks “dead” after the abortive attempt at a summit meeting with the Taliban at Camp David.
We will soon withdraw from Afghanistan under President Trump or his successor. The Taliban will defeat the Kabul government quickly and re-establish their “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” as a safe haven from which Islamic terror networks will mount attacks on the West, on India and other nations.
That is the big difference between Afghanistan and Vietnam. The Taliban are a religiously-motivated enemy whose ideology will continue to propel them — and those to whom they give safe haven — to attack us. The North Vietnamese, driven by nationalism and Communist ideology, had no motive to carry their war back to the United States.
So where do we go from here? Because Mr. Trump wants to escape the “endless war” that nation-building creates, he knows it would be an enormous mistake for him to follow the path set by Mr. Bush. The other options are better but neither will deliver the end of our war in Afghanistan.
The least bad option, as I have written before, is to withdraw U.S. and coalition ground troops, leaving behind enough special forces, intelligence assets and air power to detect and interdict terrorist operations against us. That commitment will have to continue indefinitely.
The worst option is Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s, to withdraw our troops quickly and regardless of the circumstances. She would abandon the Kabul government to rapid conquest by the Taliban. America and our allies will be threatened and attacked by the terrorist networks that will have safe havens there. Not only will we suffer those attacks — as bad or worse than 9-11 — but we will have to go back into Afghanistan again and again, forever more.
We mustn’t conclude, as Ms. Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and Mr. Buttigieg have, that even if war is forced upon us, as it was on 9-11, we shouldn’t fight. The lesson of Vietnam is that if you don’t fight a war in a manner calculated to win it decisively, you will lose it inevitably. As it was then, so it is now.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”
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