The announcement of a peace agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban is said to be imminent, after years of combat and months of negotiation. The U.S. will reportedly promise to reduce its military presence in Afghanistan in exchange for a Taliban commitment to cooperate against international terrorism and enter direct talks with the Afghan government.
For Americans as well as Afghans, any possibility of settling this conflict is cause for hope. But even as citizens in both countries pray for peace, leaders in Washington must proceed with caution. While diplomatic progress with the Taliban may justify a reduction in U.S. force levels, under no circumstances should the Trump administration repeat the mistake its predecessor made in Iraq and agree to a total withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan.
A complete military exit from Afghanistan today would be even more ill-advised and risky than the Obama administration’s disengagement from Iraq in 2011. Iraq had largely been stabilized by the time the last U.S. combat elements left, with al Qaeda having been routed during the 2007 surge. In Afghanistan, by contrast, the Taliban are far from defeated, while some 20 foreign terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and ISIS retain a presence in the region. It is unlikely that any will join a peace deal.
The idea that the U.S. can leave if the Taliban promise to combat rather than conspire with these groups is also wrongheaded. Until the Taliban demonstrate they have both the determination and the capability to work with the Afghan government against international terrorists—and there is ample reason to doubt this—common sense dictates the U.S. must retain its own means to pressure extremist networks plotting against the American homeland and U.S. allies. This can be accomplished only by having some number of capable American forces in Afghanistan, along with substantial “enablers” such as unmanned aerial vehicles and close air support.
While Iraq’s sectarian unraveling after the U.S. withdrawal in 2011 was a possibility that some foresaw, it was far from assured. If the Trump administration orders a full pullout from Afghanistan, there is considerably less doubt about what will happen—full-blown civil war and the re-establishment of a terrorist sanctuary as existed when the 9/11 attacks were planned there.
The Taliban have clearly indicated what they will try to do once U.S. forces are gone: overthrow the Afghan government and reimpose medieval rule. Their resistance to a formal cease-fire, continued barbaric attacks on civilians, and opposition to elections scheduled for this fall are all warning signs. Such a conflagration is likely to reinvigorate the flagging fortunes of Islamist extremism world-wide and the global terrorist threat—which, despite the destruction of Islamic State’s territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria, is by no means defeated.
Some have suggested that, should Afghanistan implode following the departure of American ground troops, the U.S. can simply adopt an “offshore” counterterrorism strategy—relying on drone strikes and targeted raids from afar to disrupt plots. That is a fantasy. Unlike Yemen or Somalia, landlocked Afghanistan is distant from U.S. air bases. For all the wizardry of technology, drones can fly only so fast and stay aloft only so long. Effective counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan—and, just as important, in neighboring tribal areas of Pakistan—will prove all but impossible absent an enduring U.S. footprint on Afghan soil.
Others say it still isn’t worth staying even if Afghanistan is poised to collapse without U.S. troops. In an era of resurgent great-power competition and record deficits, the thinking goes, keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan is an unaffordable distraction from other, more pressing national issues. This, too, is wrong. The cost of retaining a few thousand troops in Afghanistan pales in comparison with the price the nation will pay, strategically and economically, if al Qaeda or ISIS rebuilds a terrorist platform there.
The Obama administration left Iraq in part because it believed that doing so would free up resources for its “rebalance” in favor of Asia and domestic priorities. Instead, renewed instability in Iraq and the civil war in Syria opened the door to ISIS, which promptly became the all-consuming problem for American national security and compelled the administration to rush thousands of soldiers back to Iraq and later Syria. If the U.S. abandons Afghanistan to chaos, this pattern is likely to repeat itself and the resulting crisis will once again dominate Washington’s foreign-policy bandwidth, to the detriment of its ability to manage other challenges, including China.
The alternative is to recognize that the U.S. doesn’t need a plan for leaving but a strategy for staying—one that carefully minimizes American, coalition and Afghan costs and casualties but accepts the necessity of a sustained and sustainable troop presence to safeguard vital U.S. interests.
We’ll never know whether Iraq’s collapse could have been averted had the Obama administration left a few thousand combat troops there in 2011. What isn’t debatable is that the U.S. would have been in a stronger position to respond when the country’s fragile politics began to fracture and could have reacted much more rapidly when ISIS appeared.
The Trump administration should apply the lessons of that tragic experience to the present situation in South Asia. Simply put, the kind of U.S. withdrawal that was inadvisable in Iraq eight years ago would be indefensible for Afghanistan today.
Mr. Petraeus, a retired U.S. Army general, served as commander of U.S. Central Command and of coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Mr. Serchuk is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and served as foreign-policy adviser to former Sen. Joseph Lieberman.
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