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Reality Check: Still Same Number of U.S. Troops in Afghanistan

Now the Pentagon wants to tie the gradual withdrawal of 8,500 servicemembers to success of talks. Don't do it.

A mere five months late, negotiations between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan are set to begin soon—well, probably.

The talks were delayed by Kabul’s slow decision to release a group of 400 Taliban prisoners whose freedom, as part of a larger prisoner exchange, was a condition set by prior agreement between the Taliban and the United States. That decision was finally announced Sunday, and the next round of diplomacy is expected to begin within a week of the forthcoming release.

This is welcome progress, particularly as the Taliban for years refused to talk to Kabul, erecting a major impediment to peace. But it’s also worth noticing how long it has taken to reach this point, and how much uncertainty remains moving forward. That uncertainty is unavoidable. It is also why the United States should end our involvement in Afghanistan’s conflict immediately and for good.

The current U.S. deployment to Afghanistan numbers around 8,600, nearly identical to the 8,400 there at the start of the Trump administration. In the first three years after taking office, President Trump expanded the American footprint in Afghanistan to around 14,000 troops (excluding the “invisible army” of contractors, who often outnumber the U.S. military proper in Afghanistan and Iraq alike). Since reaching a tentative deal in U.S.-Taliban negotiations, the U.S. troop presence has been reduced to the 8,600 of today.

From there, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Saturday, the total will be lowered again—to about 5,000—by the end of November. Whether this timeline will stick remains to be seen. Trump speaks with enthusiasm of ending the U.S. role in the war in Afghanistan, reportedly suggesting in private that a full exit could be completed by Election Day. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has used the threat of withdrawing U.S. forces and aid to push Kabul forward in its dealings with the Taliban.

But the Trump administration doesn’t seem entirely willing to actually leave Afghanistan. Even if Trump himself sincerely wants to end this “endless war,” it’s not clear his advisors do.  To date, again, the net reduction of U.S. presence on this administration’s watch has been zero. This next withdrawal plan is “conditions-based,” Esper said, meaning it could be delayed, canceled, or even reversed with another surge if conditions change.

And conditions could well change. Former Afghan President Abdullah Abdullah, who is leading the Afghan-Taliban negotiations, has proposed a nationwide ceasefire as these talks begin. But what if the Taliban declines or, after accepting, breaks the ceasefire with a new attack? Or what if top Taliban leadership consents, but some local cell or leader decides to launch an attack of their own accord? These are plausible scenarios which could once again set back the peace process by months, including suspending U.S. exit plans.

Even if a ceasefire holds, this diplomacy won’t move quickly. Decades of war are not easily resolved, especially when the goal, as here, is relatively peaceful coexistence within a single, reasonably democratic polity. Afghanistan’s conflict is arguably best characterized as a civil war with foreign intervention—intervention that is not and cannot be conducive to peace, because there is no foreign military solution to what is ultimately a domestic problem with political, religious, and cultural elements which Washington demonstrably cannot address with bombs.

Tying American withdrawal from Afghanistan to these peace talks recklessly submits our foreign policy to the whims of the Taliban. This is strategically bizarre, because every moment U.S. forces remain in harm’s way is a moment risking some new escalation—including, in perhaps the worst case scenario, open conflict with Russia. This slow, conditional exit dangerously prolongs a war that should have ended years ago—a war, in fact, that three in four Americans are ready to end now.

It doesn’t help the Afghan people, either. Civilian casualties have hit record highs under the Trump administration, and a continued U.S. security subsidy allows Kabul to put off hard but necessary choices in its diplomacy. Would this prisoner release decision have come five months late without an ongoing American military presence in Afghanistan? It is impossible to say with certainty, of course, but it seems at least possible intra-Afghan negotiations would proceed with more pragmatism and urgency without the distortive effects of U.S. intervention.

That Kabul and the Taliban are talking is a good thing. Diplomacy is necessary for bringing Afghanistan’s longstanding conflict to any sort of tolerable resolution. The Trump administration was right to open negotiations with the Taliban, and it should encourage and facilitate these talks moving forward. But using that diplomacy to excuse further protracting the longest war in U.S. history—needlessly risking American and Afghan lives, to say nothing of chancing fresh escalation—is indefensible, evidence of either an inconceivable optimism or no real intent to withdraw.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.