(The following article first appeared on the Atlantic Council’s webpage and is being republished in Pulse News Mexico with specific prior permission.)    

U.S. President Donald Trump’s last-minute shuffling of senior personnel at the Pentagon, amid what is at best an uncertain endgame for his administration, has renewed speculation that he will attempt to complete the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan before Christmas, or in any event before he leaves office.

It is difficult to understand what benefit he, or those around him, might believe would be derived from such an impetuous, damaging and risky course of action. But proceeding — indeed speeding — down that road would leave a lasting stain not only on the president and his administration, but on our nation. Doing so would end any hope for a decent and responsible peace agreement in Afghanistan, and would also put to rest any prospect that Trump’s legacy might include taking credit for the Afghan peace process that he and his Afghanistan team took the lead in creating.

Right now, U.S. forces are already at their lowest level since the early stages of the U.S. and coalition campaign in Afghanistan. These forces are accompanied on the ground by declining, but still substantial, numbers of NATO and coalition forces. Those partner forces, it bears recalling, rely on the U.S. military for key aspects of support that enable their presence. Were the order given to withdraw U.S. forces completely within four to eight weeks, the result would be not an orderly, safe withdrawal, but an evacuation: hasty, ill-planned and risky.

Were the order given to withdraw U.S. forces completely within four to eight weeks, the result would be not an orderly, safe withdrawal, but an evacuation: hasty, ill-planned and risky.

The deployment of U.S. military force is a complex enterprise, requiring extensive infrastructure, equipment and support. It cannot be turned on and off like a switch, and withdrawing is just as complicated an exercise. A complete but planned and orderly withdrawal (which we oppose outside the context of a peace agreement) would be damaging enough. The spectacle of U.S. troops abandoning facilities and equipment, leaving the field in Afghanistan to the Taliban and ISIS, would be broadcast around the world as a symbol of U.S. defeat and humiliation, and of victory for Islamist extremism.

Those who wish the United States harm will toast with champagne or tea, while those who wish the United States well will be dismayed and have their suspicions of Washington as an unreliable partner reinforced. Our allies would need to depart from Afghanistan under similar, ignominious circumstances, leading to heightened concern in many capitals about whether they would want to join the United States in coalition security efforts in the future — something that is vital to our own security.

And, to underscore the obvious, the United States would be consigning to an even more perilous fate the many Afghan men and women who share the U.S. vision of a peaceful Afghanistan — a partner in combatting violent Islamist extremism and posing no threat to its neighbors — and who have worked with us to advance that vision.

Currently, there is no need for an abrupt decision on withdrawal and the president can claim credit both for having lowered the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to historic levels and for opening the door for peace talks. It is ironic that anyone would consider it beneficial to the president or the country to imperil that legacy and U.S. security, in the process dishonoring the sacrifice of the brave American men and women who fought there.

We hope that speculation about a rushed departure is unfounded, or that those who might be tempted by the prospect will conclude that the damage done would far outweigh whatever benefit they might anticipate. Let the president take credit for what has been achieved, and leave the next stage for Afghanistan to the next administration.

Ambassador JAMES B. CUNNINGHAM was U.S. deputy ambassador to Afghanistan in 2011 and U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012 to 2014. He is also a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. Ambassador JOHN NEGROPONTE was U.S. deputy secretary of state from 2007 to 2009 and director of national intelligence from 2005 to 2007. Ambassador RONALD E. NEUMANN was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. Ambassador HUGO LLORENS was U.S. assistant chief of mission in Afghanistan from 2012 to 2013 and chargé d’affaires from 2016 to 2017. Ambassador RICHARD OLSEN was U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2015 to 2016) and previously served at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan (2011 to 2012), as well as U.S. ambassador to the UAE and to Pakistan. Ambassador EARL ANTHONY WAYNE was US deputy ambassador to Afghanistan and coordinating director for development from 2009 to 2011. He is also a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center.

…Nov. 17, 2020

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