Jim Hanson: US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan would be welcome news

A Trump administration plan to withdraw several thousand of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan if a peace agreement is reached with Taliban insurgents is welcome news.

U.S. officials told Fox News that negotiations are still underway with the Taliban, meaning the possible troop withdrawal is not final. The number of American troops that could be withdrawn has not been announced.

Zalmay Khalilzad – the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, who was born in that country – is leading the talks with the Taliban. He has hinted that a peace agreement could be reached within days.


We should all hope for an agreement ending the long war in Afghanistan. The U.S. has nothing left that we can accomplish that justifies keeping a large military presence there.

For the past 19 years we have spent massive amounts of time, energy and money in an attempt to make Afghanistan a stable country free of Islamist insurgent forces. Most significantly, more than 2,430 American troops have been killed in the war in Afghanistan since 2001.


The Taliban ruled the country at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan and with the help of Afghan forces ousted the Taliban government, which was protecting the Al Qaeda terrorist group that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.

But despite losing power, the Taliban – along with Al Qaeda and ISIS fighters – have battled U.S., Afghan and allied coalition forces in the years since.

At the height of the war in 2011, there were about 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

We have to be honest and admit that we cannot totally eliminate the Taliban, other Islamist groups and their influence in Afghanistan. So our best realistic option is to make a deal with the least bad elements and move on.

We have to be honest and admit that we cannot totally eliminate the Taliban, other Islamist groups and their influence in Afghanistan. So our best realistic option is to make a deal with the least bad elements and move on.

The argument against further U.S. troop withdrawals made by many – including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. – is that we can’t leave Afghanistan because Al Qaeda may reconstitute there and plan another attack against the U.S.

“One thing I know for certain – Al Qaeda and ISIS will never be at the negotiating table,” Graham said.

Graham is right that the two terrorist groups should not be involved in peace negotiations. But that’s not a good reason to turn Afghanistan into the quagmire we choose to never leave.

Any deal we make with the Taliban is predicated on the idea that Al Qaeda and ISIS will not be allowed to operate in Afghanistan. If that provision is violated, we can always come back from the sky with a rain of Hellfire missiles to destroy any foothold the terrorists claw out.


We have allowed Afghanistan to become a symbol of our resolve to never allow another Sept. 11. But that ignores the global nature of al Qaeda, ISIS and the Islamic Jihad terrorist group.

There are any number of other places equally or more likely to host a resurgence of terrorism that could target the U.S. or other nations.

Many of the terrorists who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq are scattered around the Middle East and other parts of the world. They could avoid raising a flag anywhere and simply skulk in the shadows and allow their fighters to wreak havoc in their home countries and elsewhere.

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been reported to be in Libya taking advantage of its status as a failed state, for example.

The U.S. military is deeply invested in not “losing” the war in Afghanistan. The current leaders of our armed forces have been fighting this war most of their careers. But there is no path to winning it and we need to accept that.

If there was a path to victory in Afghanistan, we would have made some demonstrable progress in the almost two decades we have been fighting there. The best and most painful description of our efforts I’ve heard is that we haven’t fought a 19-year war – we’ve fought the same war 19 times.

We rotate units in, and they have to learn their area of operations and the local forces and leaders located there. The U.S. troops do their best for one fighting season, then they rotate right back out. Rinse and repeat. Or not. And that is where we are today.

Since our strategy has denied us victory in Afghanistan, we must change our strategy. Staying in Afghanistan another 19 years or longer and doing nothing differently will at best maintain the status quo.

The fight against the Islamists has two facets. One is direct conflict with their terrorist and armed factions. The second is a battle to show the bulk of the Muslim world that this regressive and oppressive ideology is not their destiny.

Muslims can live in the modern world without compromising their identity and religion. Saudi Arabia serves as the “Custodian of the two Holy Mosques” and it is embarked on a modernization program that drives the Islamists crazy. The Saudis are showing a path forward from the 7th century vision of Al Qaeda and ISIS.

No one should trust the Taliban – members of the group are barbaric and evil. But they are resilient and they are staying.

So we should make a deal with the Taliban, while expecting they will not abide by it unless forced. We can offer some incentives for economic development, but also assume that endemic corruption will suck most of that dry.

The only thing that will prompt the Taliban to honor any agreement is fear of retribution if they do not. The advantage for us is we can bring that kind of pain in an asymmetric way rather than our current model of trying to control the situation on the ground.

The hellish terrain and tribal nature of Afghanistan has shown us exactly what it showed everyone from Alexander the Great, to the British to the Russians. You cannot conquer Afghanistan – you can only hope to lease some peace.


That is what we must do now. We must pay some people we rightly despise for a promise to keep some even worse people from using Afghanistan as a base.

We should have no illusions that a peace agreement in Afghanistan is a victory in the traditional sense. But it is also not a defeat, and sometimes that is good enough.