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Regardless of who wins in November, the US is likely to stay in Afghanistan

It’s unlikely that we will see a complete end to the 19-year long war under Trump or Biden, or pressure from the leadership of either party in Congress to do so.

Analysis | Middle East

After nearly two decades trapped in an endless war in Afghanistan, a key part of Congress voted once more to extend the U.S. military’s stay in the country, as the House Armed Services Committee’s passed an amendment to make it more difficult for the Trump administration to withdraw troops — while at the same time, the Senate rejected of Senator Rand Paul’s proposal to withdraw all troops from the country within a year.

Despite ever more frequent calls for the U.S. to end its military intervention in Afghanistan, the long running occupation is likely to continue, regardless of who is elected to the presidency this November. Though both President Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden make similar promises to end the endless war in Afghanistan on the campaign trail, they have also expressed interest in maintaining and even expanding the CIA presence in the country, which will prolong the war covertly.

If Trump wins reelection and an ongoing Afghanistan war

Kori Schake of the American Enterprise Institute has called President Trump’s and former vice president Joe Biden’s positions on Afghanistan “indistinguishable.” Both Trump and Biden have expressed interest in keeping a small footprint in Afghanistan to deter terrorist efforts and protect U.S. interests, with Trump wanting to keep a “high intelligence” presence in the country. Part of this intelligence presence includes continuing the drone program that Trump inherited from the Obama administration, over which Trump has relaxed restrictions and oversight, and delegated greater authority to military commanders and the CIA. Controversial drone strikes have spiked in the country during Trump’s presidency. His administration is likely to continue, and even expand the drone program in Afghanistan, as a response to the Taliban and al-Qaeda’s growing strength there.

The Trump administration’s eagerness to withdraw the U.S. military from Afghanistan, evident in the reduction of troop numbers immediately after signing its deal with the Taliban, could possibly be thwarted again by a Democratic Congress. Recently the House Armed Services Committee passed the Crow-Cheney amendment, an amendment to the NDAA that would require the U.S. to meet several certifications before withdrawing more troops, essentially prolonging the war. Resistance like this from Congressional Democrats on major foreign policy issues is likely to continue if Trump remains in power.

According to various polls, there is a possibility that both the House and the Senate may be under Democratic control come November. FiveThirtyEight’s congressional polling aggregate reports that the Democrats have a 9-point lead in the race for Congress, as of July 2020.

If a Democratic majority in Congress is in the future, Trump can expect to see more pushback from the House and Senate any time his administration attempts to withdraw more troops from Afghanistan.

It is also worth noting the inconsistency of Democratic majorities in the past two decades regarding troop withdrawal in the Middle East. The decisions and actions of members of Congress seem to rest primarily on who is in the Oval Office at the moment.

The last time Congress saw the Democrats take majority in both the House and Senate with a sitting Republican president was during George W. Bush’s last term in office. This period, from 2007 to 2008, saw great opposition from Congress when it came to important foreign policy decisions, like the Bush administration’s infamous 2007 troop surge in Iraq. In May 2007, Congress signed a controversial war spending bill that set a timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi argued that Congress would not give the president a “blank check” for the war in Iraq.

In that case, Congress opposed the president’s unlawful war in Iraq and favored the withdrawal of U.S. troops. In stark contrast to this decision, just three years later in 2010 an overwhelming majority of the Democratic-controlled House voted to keep troops in Afghanistan, essentially re-legitimizing the “dubious war.” And months later, Congress voted for a defense bill that authorized the surge of up to 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the highest in the history of the war. Thus, Democrats in Congress do not seem to have a reliable stance when it comes to ending endless wars, though presidential candidates of their party have used the issue as a selling point in debates.

If Biden inherits the Afghanistan War

Though Biden has been hailed as the “consistent voice of caution” within the Obama administration when it came to matters concerning Afghanistan, this may change if he becomes commander in chief.

Like many other nominees during the 2020 Democratic Party presidential debates, Joe Biden strongly argued for the need to end America’s “forever wars” while still emphasizing the obligation to protect American security interests, especially in Afghanistan, through the presence of special operations forces and intelligence personnel. Through a strategy he calls “counterterrorism plus,” Biden's plan involves using U.S. special forces and “aggressive air strikes” to fight terrorist networks in the Middle East, which likely means favoring the increase of controversial drone strikes in the country if he is elected. U.S. drone strikes, or “targeted killings,” during the Obama administration were responsible for 982 civilian casualties in Afghanistan in 2015 alone. Biden’s desire to limit the number of troops on the ground likely means he will expand Obama’s covert drone program not only in Afghanistan but in Pakistan and throughout Africa as well.

And in fact, he pushed hard for the expansion of the drone program and the use of Special Operations troops as vice president during the Obama administration. Biden has been adamantly opposed to the notion of nation-building in Afghanistan, and has argued that counterterrorism operations in the country would more realistically attain U.S. goals. Thus, the U.S. will still be heavily involved in Afghanistan under a Biden presidency. Additionally, a heavy focus on covert counterterrorism missions would still require a significant troop force for activities like intelligence gathering.

Since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement in February, the situation in Afghanistan has gotten drastically worse, with the Taliban increasing the number of attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians. Recent reports outline the Taliban’s growing network in the country through a trend of local police officers and soldiers switching sides to join the militant group. A U.N. report released last month also outlines the Taliban’s strong connection to al-Qaeda, which may pull a future Trump or Biden administration back into the country’s affairs.

If Biden bases the decision to maintain or withdraw military presence on the conditions on the ground, it is likely that American troops will remain with Congress agreeing with him. The increase in terrorist activity will also allow Biden to justify expanding the covert drone program in the country, which may involve fewer troops on the ground, but would not entail the end of the war.  

With more than three months left in the race, it is still difficult to say with certainty who will be elected in November. Afghanistan will certainly be a priority foreign policy issue for the president, and his initial decisions in office will have an immense impact on the trajectory of the war and violence in that country. However, it’s unlikely that we will see a complete end to the 19-year long war under Trump or Biden, or pressure from the leadership of either party in Congress to do so.

It will be up to the growing coalition of like-minded progressives and conservatives who oppose America’s endless wars to make the case for finally leaving Afghanistan, and, marshaling favorable public opinion, to push the president and their congressional colleagues to follow their lead.

President Donald J. Trump visits troops at Bagram Airfield on Thursday, November 28, 2019, in Afghanistan, during a surprise visit to spend Thanksgiving with troops. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
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