The United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal this weekend after 19 years of war, to ease the way towards American full withdrawal from a semi-feudal hell. After a grueling marathon negotiation process, American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad signed the papers, agreeing that the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies will withdraw all troops within 14 months if the militants uphold the deal.
Words do not convey how phenomenal this is. For a start, all U.S. “military forces” and “non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel” are promised be withdrawn by April 23, 2021. That’s just after the election, or re-election of President Trump.
There was immediate support from the conservative and realist spectrum of foreign policy. Will Ruger of the Charles Koch Institute tweeted that while this is only a first step, it is nevertheless a major achievement for the United States to finally chart a course for leaving its longest law and order policing mission in a region where there is no U.S. strategic interest.
Defense Priorities Senior Fellow Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis said the United States had been in Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda and punish the Taliban, which was over by 2003, and it was a mistake to stay after the swift victory to nation-build. “Nearly two decades later, the U.S. remains mired in training and policing missions related to Kabul’s security, not America’s.”
Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative group, released a statement supporting this move as well. “President Trump deserves a great deal of credit for pursuing this agreement and laying the groundwork to end the longest war in American history,” the statement said, adding, that “…this agreement is in no way a substitute for a full withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan – an action the president has promised and closure the American people want.”
Predictable detractors of the deal ranged from President Obama’s former Ambassador Susan Rice, who argued that Trump had betrayed “Afghan women” by not requiring Afghanistan to adopt western ideals as part of the agreement, to former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton and neoconservatives like Stephen Hayes and Max Boot.
Consider for a moment that Trump never had a strong backing from even conservative realists, who would otherwise support this kind of deal. When Trump first won the presidency, a majority of academics, even those who are realists in foreign policy, decided to stay away from the administration. It was understandable then.
When Trump won, the media went on overdrive to insist he is a Russian agent and that everything this White House does is more toxic than Richard Nixon. Academics are mostly liberal interventionists or neoconservatives, but even those who prefer a more restrained and prudential approach to foreign policy wanted to wait and watch, and were predictably worried about their reputational cost and ostracism within the academy if they attached their names to Trump.
Only one IR theorist was open about Trump’s foreign policy in his early days. Professor Randall Schweller wrote of his qualified support for Trump in 2018. Thus, Trump had no institutional support for his foreign policy vision of minimal intervention, and was unable to man his team with aligned personnel. There was no Federalist Society making a list of judges in the field of foreign policy, so to speak.
But even with that drawback, and barring major changes, Trump is on his way to be the first president in 25 years not to have started a new land war in the Middle East. With the Islamic State decimated, a staunch refusal to engage further in Iraq and Syria, a refusal against his own team to intervene in Venezuela and Iran, and with this new deal with Afghanistan, Trump is managing to focus on an adversarial China, although far less than I’d have wanted him to.
For example, the coronavirus should show why decoupling supply chains with China remains an urgent necessity. As for Afghanistan, there will never be perfect academic realism translated into administrative policy, as policy is inherently messy. But as long as it follows broadly a realist grand strategy of narrowly defined interest, and prioritized regions of engagement and regions of retrenchment, realists should be more welcoming of that.
The peace deal in Afghanistan is only a start. It is not done, and there will be an immense push in the coming days to portray this as appeasement and foolishness.
The bottom line is this. Afghan internal politics and dynamics are not an American, or indeed British, concern, as these have no direct security bearing on the United States or the West. This isn’t 2002. Technology has advanced, with modern platforms allowing for greater long-distance vigilance and punitive measures. Research suggests the West should have let the strongest pro-Western warlord take over Afghanistan and impose a brutal peace, instead of attempting to impose a 1960s-style sexual revolution on a feudal society funded and guarded by Western blood and treasures.
President Trump now needs to remember, as repeated surveys show, that the majority of Americans and of veterans want a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. This is a winning foreign policy, and one for the history books.
There is nothing conservative about trying to shape feudal societies, and nothing realist about thinking every adversary and theater is reminiscent of Germany and Munich circa 1938. The signing of the deal marks a record to go to an election with, with no war with Iran, a partial drawdown from Iraq and Syria, the peace deal signed with Afghanistan, no new war started anywhere, an no intervention in Venezuela. It’s not perfect, as no administration ever is, but it’s better than the last 20 years.