Imagine being a U.S. citizen who believes that America should withdraw its troops from Afghanistan after nearly 18 years of increasingly pointless war. Shouldn’t be too hard, since that describes 61 percent of Americans—and an eye-popping 69 percent of veterans—polled in October 2018 by YouGov.
But let’s also stipulate that by some glitch in the time-space continuum you become president of the United States, and that in one of your first major post-election interviews you observe that “nothing is going well” in Afghanistan. Wouldn’t you think those troops would be home more than two years after that?
This is where we find ourselves in the spring of 2019—with a president who accurately declares in his State of the Union address that “great nations do not fight endless wars,” even while 14,000 of the troops under his command still suffer and inflict death more than 200 months (and 2,300 Americans killed) after U.S. forces first overthrew the Taliban government.
“We should leave Afghanistan immediately,” Trump tweeted as far back as March 2013. “No more wasted lives.” He was right then, and presumably still leans that way now. To invert the old Madeleine Albright quote, what’s the point of these superb executive powers if you can’t use them to withdraw troops?
“We have a president—the first president, really—to say that the war has long been over, there is no military solution, he’s bringing the troops home,” Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) says. “The problem is that several of his advisers that he has appointed don’t necessarily agree with him. So they either countermand his sentiments or talk him into delaying.”
Former Trump chief of staff and Obama-administration chief of U.S. Southern Command John Kelly has basically admitted to the latter tactic, telling the Los Angeles Times in an interview last year that when he arrived at the White House in August 2017, Trump “was inclined to want to withdraw from Afghanistan.” Instead, Kelly and others persuaded the draft-dodging president to add troops and wait for some mythical moment when conditions would allow for a drawdown.