We've recently seen high level departures from defence officials in the Trump administration. And criticism and concern by allied governments.

Those frustrations are motivated largely by the US decision to leave Syria, but also, to a lesser extent, by the withdrawal of about 7000 troops from Afghanistan.

For the record, and to provide a context to my question, I believe that withdrawal from engagement in Syria will likely end up as a strategic mistake. However, my question is only about the Afghanistan part of POTUS' recent announcements.

Bearing in mind that some are criticizing "cutting and running" from Afghanistan, how is that strategy, humiliating though it might be, wrong and what would be better alternatives, at this point?

  • the US has been stuck there since 2001 and shows no immediate sign of tipping the balance towards establishing a stable, popular, non-Taliban government that stands on its own. Corruption remains extremely high and tribal allegiances matter.

  • nation building, eschewed among others by Doug Feith in War and Decision, might have worked in 2001. But by later years, many believed that reconstruction money was in fact being diverted into Taliban hands.

  • the Taliban have very little motivation to make significant concessions at this point. So, if not Trump in 2019, sooner or later another US president will likely end up making the same decision.

  • the lynchpin argument is avoiding another 9/11. But at 2400 US servicemen killed vs 2900 victims of 9/11, the numbers are comparable. Yes, casualty rates have dropped massively since 2014. But arguably, aside from Bin Laden's termination, in Pakistan, most of the gains were achieved in 2001, by overthrowing the Taliban at comparatively little cost. The risk of supporting high level terrorism would be well-known to any future Afghanistan goverment.

  • CO(unter) IN(surgency) wars are extremely hard to win in general. The gold standard has been Malaysia, with particular ethnic features. And Indonesia which was achieved at extremely high cost in human life, so tends to be hushed up.

  • the US armed forces are arguably focussing too much on COIN warfare, having ignored it too long before 9/11. This opens opportunities for peer adversaries (China, Russia) as too much effort is geared at procuring COIN-capable weapon systems. On a flip side, US forces have a huge edge in combat experience.

If we focus, not on what might have been, nor on debating other merits or flaws of the Trump administration's foreign policy, what is inherently wrong with a drawdown in Afghanistan and what would have been a better alternative?


  • stopping wasting lives and money in a war which is not being won.

  • refocussing US defense to things that matter. ISIS in Syria, North Korea, Russia, managing China's eventual ascent

  • being able to cut loose Pakistan.


  • significant probability of the collapse of the current government and reversion to Taliban rule.
  • safe-heaven for terrorists to strike elsewhere
  • potential for massive suffering by Afghan population
  • Afghan National Army weapons could up on black market

No, this is not an ideal situation, but in criticizing both the actions and the motivations for this decision by POTUS, one needs to offer constructive alternatives.

What credible alternatives have recently been suggested besides doing the same thing next year and the year after?

  • 1
    You have to also ask about the downsides of leaving and if they would leave us worse off then staying
    – Joe W
    Dec 24, 2018 at 2:44
  • Could you provide the term for what "COIN" stands?
    – Sjoerd
    Dec 24, 2018 at 10:48
  • "COIN": en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counter-insurgency
    – ChrisW
    Dec 24, 2018 at 16:10
  • 1
    "Stop wasting lives" - 2 US soldiers died in Afganistan in 2018 and 0 in Syria. The presence is more of a deterrent than an active war zone. (minor nit pick on one of your pros). Not that 2 lives is nothing, but it's not an active war. statista.com/statistics/262894/…
    – userLTK
    Dec 24, 2018 at 23:58
  • 2
    @userLTK Fair enough. $45B/year however, which is a significant chunk of the Pentagon's yearly budget. pbs.org/newshour/politics/… Also, only 2 guys getting killed from 10K+ year makes me think they are mostly staying on base, which makes it unlikely they'll be able to change the country's dynamics very much. Dec 26, 2018 at 18:49

2 Answers 2


One major problem at least is that the US are not alone in Afghanistan. As far as I can tell President Trump did not consult with any of the coalition members, but announced the retreat unilaterally, so they now have to rather suddenly decide if they cut and run, too, and risk the loss of face, or if they commit many more troops, which will not at all sit well with the respective electorates.

Another problem is that with the American troops gone, the Afghans who worked for the coalition troops (or know somebody who works for the coalition troops, or look like they may have worked for the coalition troops, or have noses that the Taliban think look funny) will sooner or later be slaughtered. This is obviously a problem from a humanitarian point of view. It is also a problem for my Government specifically (I am German), since they maintain that Afghanistan is a safe country that you can deport Asylum seekers to (so again the decision caused problems for at least one ally).

I don't think there is credible way out of an incredible mess. Making this a staged retreat in concert with US allies would have at least looked a little better, and would have avoided upsetting said allies. Granting generous asylum to Afghans that supported the coalition troops would have ameliorated the humanitarian aspect (but I can't think of any country that would have agreed to that). Another surge would probably be just as pointless as the last ones.

From the rather selfish point of view of my own government leaving things as they are would have been the best solution (since the relative safety in Afghanistan allows for at least a few symbolic deportations – big point in domestic policy – while the US troops conveniently carry the brunt of the casualties).

As for "one has to offer credible alternatives", I think that would be true if this was the single controversial decision of the president. For the people who think the president decides on a whim the credible alternative would be to point out that the US needs a consistent foreign policy, even if they do not have better ideas for every single aspect of such a policy.

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    Did you really expect consultation, from this administration? But that's not the question and nor is it about the preparation for this announcement, the question remains is withdrawal incorrect and, if so, what should be done instead? Dec 24, 2018 at 21:18

Another significant issue is that the US has recently entered negotiations with the Taliban.

Obviously, the Taliban will want US troops to leave Afghanistan, and by withdrawing half of them unilaterally, the US gives up part of its negotiating capital and gets nothing in return.

  • 4
    WRT to immediate criticism, this seems like a strong answer. POTUS might have wanted to issue orders planning for a withdrawal to his staff and try to leverage as much as possible in current negotiations without tipping his hand. Seems like Negotiation 101. Bear in mind however, that talks have been ongoing at some levels for 2-3 years at least so any extra US activity would tend to be interpreted as pre-withdrawal by savvy Talibans. Dec 24, 2018 at 21:06

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