Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Lessons We ForgetWhat History Teaches Of The Looming Withdrawal From Afghanistan

By Benjamin FeldmanPublished February 17, 2019

U.S. Marines stand guard during a ceremony in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in January. (Courtesy of Amir Shah, Associated Press)
Having lost any prospect of victory in Afghanistan, President Trump should remember the lessons of Iraq in 2011 and Vietnam in 1973

In his 2019 State of the Union Address, Donald Trump called for an end to American involvement in Afghanistan, stating that: “Great nations do not fight endless wars.” The Trump administration has been hopeful that its negotiations with the Taliban will pay off, allowing the US to withdraw, which would represent a PR victory and end the longest war in American history. Having lost any prospect of victory in Afghanistan, President Trump should remember the lessons of Iraq in 2011 and Vietnam in 1973. President Trump should avoid declaring victory, listen to the Afghans, and approach withdrawal with flexibility.

When fighting a significantly weaker power, especially when the population views the struggle through the lens of self-determination in their own homeland, the conflict is not going to end by formal diplomatic means.


The 2003 mission in Iraq represented an offensive war centered on American national security objectives. With its strength, the US can generally achieve narrowly-defined military operations quickly. Indeed, the conventional portion of the war was a decisive American triumph. The reconstruction efforts, though, provided a much greater challenge. Today we scoff at President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech six weeks into the war.


Though War in Vietnam was broadly meant to stop the falling dominos of Communism, daily operations lacked a meaningful and defined guiding structure and, leading the war against an unknown enemy to rage for years on end. The Viet Minh, outgunned and outmanned, were decimated by the United States. Yet, the “blood and treasure” it took the US to remain in the arena cost the administration public support for the war.


When all seems lost, leaders often propose drastic upticks in funding as a response. In 2007, when President Bush surged the troop levels and invested over $100 billion per year to quell dissent in Iraq, the number of casualities and bombings declined, but the operation fostered resentment at home and abroad. By 1967, Johnson surged surging troop levels as well, though he ultimately declined General Westmoreland’s request for an additional 200,000 troops in 1968.


Each believed a linear relationship between force and stability only to understand much later the diminishing marginal returns of neo-colonialism. This brings us to the status quo in Afghanistan: the government in Kabul reportedly controls 56% of the country, down from 72% in 2015. 19 years and $1.07 trillion later, the public is weary and ready to leave. Surging the troops in Afghanistan even further is now a non-starter, unpopular both in Afghanistan and in the United States. Withdrawal is the path forward, but the mechanism for doing so is now the focus of discussion.


Examining these case studies and the framing of withdrawal can provide an important consideration for how President Trump should proceed in Afghanistan.


The policy of Vietnamization allowed for departure while paying lip service to commitment to security. For Richard Nixon in 1973, a withdrawal from Vietnam meant peace with honor – a declaration of victory. The Paris Peace Accords would put in writing the most precarious (but officially politically advantageous) settlement possible: the Viet Minh forces could stay in South Vietnam but not overthrow the government while the US would end its involvement. It took two years for Saigon to fall.


President Obama campaigned on a platform of ending the War in Iraq, focusing on the long-term future of commitment to our allies from afar. There has been resentment from Iraqi leaders as the US continued to push an agenda, even today, approaching Iraq from the top-down. This represented the best method for salvaging the fruit of American labor in Iraq while bringing the troops home and quelling anti-war voters. It took three years of uncertainty for extremism to emerge again in Iraq, forcing a higher American troop presence.


The stories of Iraq and Vietnam end in the same way, with the US looking to declare victory and frame withdrawal in terms of enduring American interests. President Trump is headed in the same direction, announcing in December that he would withdraw half the troops in Afghanistan, citing the declining threat of terrorism (while staying in Iraq to “watch Iran”). The leader of the Taliban’s peace negotiations has assured the US that the Taliban will not seize “the whole country by [military] power,” while at the same time explaining that there would be no ceasefire until foreign troops are removed.


The Trump administration is losing credibility in the Middle East due to its selfish and paternalistic policy that disregards the interests of those most affected. Washington should listen to Afghan leaders as it reframes troop withdrawals. As counterintuitive as it seems, the American approach should prioritize “Afghan interests” above “American interests.”


First and foremost, that means not declaring victory. Attempting to frame the war as a victory, as the US did in Vietnam and Iraq, reinforces the wrong lessons that lead us down the wrong path time and time again. The focus of discussions at this point should be on the Taliban’s weakening relations with Al Qaeda with the goal of pressuring the Taliban to sever ties. Working with Pakistan, rather than blaming President Imran Khan for his complacency in terror, can play an important role in preventing the rise of a stronger Al Qaeda-Taliban relationship. Finally, endorsing upcoming democratic elections and vowing to accept the results regardless undercuts the case that that Taliban makes in the first place.

Seeking a political victory in withdrawing from Afghanistan has proved inherently destabilizing. President Ghani has said that some US troop withdrawals won’t significantly affect the country’s security, and the US owes it to our allies to listen to their interests. If Donald Trump truly believes that great nations don’t fight endless wars and wants to avoid the quicksand, he should remember the lessons of our past wars – the most successful operations start with the interests of those on the ground, not the strategic aims of the empire.