What Would an Exit Strategy in Afghanistan Look Like?

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A U.S. soldier patrols in Kabul after an earlier suicide and car bombing (Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
A U.S. soldier patrols in Kabul after an earlier suicide and car bombing (Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)

What would an exit strategy in Afghanistan look like? In the following article, we analyze: 

If there is one thing Americans are sick of, it’s war. The upcoming 2020 election will be the first in which Americans born after 9/11 will be eligible to vote. This is a generation that has only known endless foreign wars.

Trump is currently in negotiations to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and secure a peace deal with the Taliban. His current plan could see thousands of American soldiers return home in exchange for a cease-fire and other concessions including breaking with Al Qaeda.

The next stage of talks will take place in Qatar soon. “If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I would win that war in a week,” Trump said on July 22. “I just don’t want to kill 10 million people. Does that make sense to you?”

So how can President Trump bring the troops home without such bloodshed? After all, America has been in Afghanistan for 18 years now. Yet after all that time and effort spent fighting them, the Taliban is now gearing up to compete in the September 28, 2019 presidential election.

Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive officer of Afghanistan told Tolo News the Taliban could participate if they engaged in negotiations.

What would victory look like?

There are three main areas any cogent exit strategy in Afghanistan will need to have.



The reason why the United States went into Afghanistan in the first place was to counter terrorism and wipe out the home base for Islamist extremists who harbored Al Qaeda.

The U.S. certainly does not want a repeat of what happened in Iraq when U.S. troops were withdrawn. After years of war and millions of dollars in investment, a huge amount of the country was easily taken over by ISIS in 2014. Many Iraqi regiments abandoned the field at the first sign of contact with the enemy. 

Similarly in Afghanistan, it is far from clear that the army would hold firm against the Taliban or other threats in the face of a U.S. withdrawal. Like Iraq, the Afghan government is rife with corruption and nepotism.

In May 2019, the United States stopped carrying out assessments on how much control the Afghan army has over the country. Before the U.S. leaves, an exit strategy which prevents the Taliban from taking over again should be in place. This includes making sure the government is stable and able to maintain itself.

For these reasons, earlier in July, Trump’s nominee for Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley said that pulling U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan too soon would be a “strategic mistake.”

“I think it is slow, it’s painful, it’s hard — I spent a lot of my life in Afghanistan — but I also think it’s necessary,” Milley told the House Armed Services Committee, according to the New York Times.


Nation Building

The second issue for any exit strategy in Afghanistan is one of nation building. The Afghan government is currently unstable and corrupt. We saw this same pattern in Iraq, where the government institutions the U.S. set up were notoriously corrupt. President Nouri al-Maliki staffed key government posts with cronies. Bribe taking and official misconduct were rampant, prompting a lot of resentment against Maliki’s administration.

When ISIS swept into the Sunni areas of Iraq, they capitalized on popular sentiment against the Shiite majority of the southeastern parts of the country.

If the U.S. wants to leave Afghanistan in a stable, optimistic condition with a positive future, it means making sure the institutions of the government are strong, the rule of law is enforced and that laws are not totalitarian.

Unfortunately, so far the United States has been making the corruption worse, not better. A 2016 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) concluded that, “Corruption undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan by fueling grievances and channeling support to the insurgency,” and that, “The U.S. contributed to the growth of corruption.”

Support for democracy and for the United States will not last if the government supported by the U.S routinely steals tax revenue and puts relatives of senior politicians without qualifications into high office with impunity.

As Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence wrote, “Generalized predatory criminality in Afghanistan lies at the crux of Afghanistan’s dire and fragile predicament.”

There is a long way left to go towards nation building.



The final issue concern in any exit strategy for Afghanistan is America’s national prestige. It is important for America’s standing in the world — in particular how other countries will engage with America in future conflicts, that the war in Afghanistan ends on a positive note.

The world’s most powerful country has spent the last 18 years in a seemingly intractable conflict against a far inferior technological foe. To be seen to lose now, which would mean suffering a national humiliation — would lead to enemies all around the world gaining in ambition and strength.

Politicians around the world will start to look to their own defenses and to countries like China and Russia to ensure their security and for international leadership.

If the U.S. wants allies to be ready and willing to join coalitions in the future, it has to be able to demonstrate that being on Team America is worth it — that after all the “blood and treasure,” something good came out of it in the end.



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