Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and Defense One, among other outlets.
Americans are "not a people of perpetual war," Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller wrote in his introductory memo to the Defense Department.
"All wars must end," he continued. "Ending wars requires compromise and partnership. We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it's time to come home."
Miller didn't specify which war he sees nearing its conclusion, and as Washington has active military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere in Africa, options abound.
The likeliest candidate, however, is the war in Afghanistan, from which President Donald Trump has said he'd like to see all U.S. troops withdrawn by Christmas. That timeline (or something very like it) is still possible, and Miller could -- and should -- use his brief tenure to get it done.
Trump himself, though fickle and distracted on this subject, would almost certainly support such a plan. He has given and broken promises of a full withdrawal multiple times, and making good on this pledge -- which would have the support of a strong majority of the American public -- might appeal as a means of paving the way to the re-election campaign he reportedly wants to run in 2024.
From a purely political standpoint, there's little downside for Trump here: He could claim a promise kept and, fairly or not, blame his successor for whatever happens over the next four years.
Logistical troubles also ought to be relatively few. The current timeline, per U.S. negotiations with the Taliban, has all American forces leaving Afghanistan by May 2021, just four months later than a pre-inauguration withdrawal would require. The Pentagon has reportedly issued a "warning order" to commanders in Afghanistan, advising them to prepare to see the U.S. footprint there reduced to about 2,500 troops by Jan. 15. As the current footprint is around 4,500, that means some 2,000 troops are to depart. Scaling that to extricate the entire 4,500 a few months early is feasible for the most powerful and best-funded military on Earth, and the strategic certainty to be gained by ending this war before a presidential transition is more than worth the trouble.
If the president and the public would back a Miller-led exit from Afghanistan and the military could accomplish it, what obstacle remains? Chiefly, the Washington foreign policy establishment, which "inflates threats, exaggerates benefits, and conceals costs to convince the American people to go along with policies that keep failing," as Harvard international relations professor Stephen Walt recently argued in Foreign Policy, citing Afghanistan as an example of exactly this dynamic. This establishment's habit of labeling "precipitous" any plan for leaving Afghanistan altogether belonged to the Obama administration before the Trump administration adopted it in incongruity with its own leader's sometime rhetoric, and it grows more absurd with every year.
Pushing through a complete U.S. military departure from Afghanistan in the next two months is not precipitous. After nearly 20 years of war, most of them stalemated, inhumane and corrupt, it is long overdue.
Miller himself understands this: "When we set out on this journey as a country, we envisioned our campaign against violent extremist organizations as a generational war, not a multigenerational war," he told a Senate committee in July. "It would be, in my view, the height of irresponsibility to leave this conflict for our children to fight."
It would be irresponsible, too, for Miller and the Trump administration more broadly to leave this conflict for the next administration. Keeping any small number of American forces in Afghanistan after Inauguration Day at best creates ambiguity about whether the May 2021 deadline will be respected by the incoming Biden team.
More likely, given President-elect Joe Biden's stated plan to keep some U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan indefinitely, whatever number of American forces are left there in January will become a floor for the Biden administration's Afghanistan deployment, not a ceiling. That could undermine intra-Afghan and U.S.-Afghan diplomatic progress or even, in a very plausible worst-case scenario, re-escalate this conflict if the Taliban interpret rejection of the May 2021 exit as a rejection of the peace deal to which it's tied. It is wiser and safer to avoid that possibility by leaving now.
Perpetual war may not come naturally to Americans, but it has become our status quo. Miller has a narrow window to change that in Afghanistan, and a rapid, prudent withdrawal there could serve as a model for winding down other U.S. military interventions in the Middle East and Africa in the near future. That is a model we desperately need.
If not Christmas, Inauguration Day should be the deadline for U.S. exit from Afghanistan and, hopefully, the start of a new and more peaceful era in American foreign policy.
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