It isn’t hard to guess what Mike Pompeo, the hawkish congressman from Kansas, would say about the Afghan exit deal that Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, is negotiating with the Taliban.
The details of the negotiations, which are being conducted in Qatar by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and could be finalized by the end of the month, are a closely held secret. So close, in fact, that I’m told Pompeo won’t allow White House officials to review details of the agreement except in his presence.
But the basic outline is this: a complete withdrawal of America’s 14,000 troops from Afghanistan within 14 months — that is, by October 2020 — in exchange for a promise from the Taliban not to attack our forces on the way out, along with some kind of vague assurance from them that Afghanistan will not again become a base for global terrorism. A source familiar with the deal says there is no explicit requirement for the Taliban to renounce its ties to al-Qaida.
Even those who want the U.S. to leave Afghanistan, come what may, should be dismayed to see an American strategic decision be so nakedly dictated by the electoral needs of a president who wants to take credit for ending “endless wars.” They should be no less dismayed by the idea that we are doing so in plain indifference to Afghanistan’s government, which wasn’t invited to the talks because the Taliban won’t deign to speak to what it considers a puppet government.
That “puppet” government is, for all of its well-known flaws, internationally recognized and democratically elected. It does not wantonly massacre its own people, or wage war on its neighbors, or sponsor terrorist groups that seek to wage war on the West. And it’s also all that will stand between the Taliban’s murderous misogyny and Afghanistan’s 18 million vulnerable women.
Then again, progressives have been pining for an Afghan exit for at least a decade, and Barack Obama set a timetable for full withdrawal (which he was later forced to reverse in the face of Taliban gains) in 2014. Foreign-policy hawks in the mold of Pompeo used to take a different view about the wisdom of U.S. retreat — at least before they became Donald Trump flunkies.
For starters, they had no patience for the lie that the Taliban was to al-Qaida merely what a flea motel is to a fugitive on the lam. The Taliban lied to Clinton administration envoy Bill Richardson in 1998 by telling him they didn’t know of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts when they were harboring him, and then refused to give him up after the 9/11 attacks.
They’d have even less patience for the convenient fantasy that the Afghan Taliban has, or ever will, part ways with its brothers in global jihad. The deputy leader of the Taliban is Sirajuddin Haqqani, who also leads the Haqqani network that has been entwined with al-Qaida since its earliest days.
“There is not a scintilla of evidence that the network is willing to break with al-Qaida,” notes Thomas Joscelyn of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Even if the Taliban were to renounce A.Q. and attacks on the West, which they have never done, you’d need a verification mechanism. But if you withdraw all Western troops, there is no verification.”
What about the case for ending a long war? That’s always desirable, and every death in war is a tragedy. But a hawk might also note that the U.S. endured just 14 fatalities in Afghanistan in 2018, and that a U.S. service member is far more likely to die in a training accident than in combat. At some point, describing our current involvement in the country as a “war” stretches semantic credibility when compared with past U.S. conflicts.
Against the human (and budgetary) cost of our presence in Afghanistan, hawks would tally the cost of withdrawal. Even liberals like former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta criticized Obama for withdrawing too hastily from Iraq, thereby creating the power vacuum that ISIS quickly filled. It was a fiasco that ended only when Obama was forced to return U.S. troops to Iraq a few years later.
Why should a similar scenario not play out in Afghanistan? It’s true that ISIS and the Taliban are rivals, but any administration willing to entrust the Taliban with being a bulwark against global terrorism is even more gullible than the poor saps who paid money for a Trump University training program.
Hawks once understood this — just as they understood that America paid a steep price in strategic and moral credibility when it bugged out of its international commitments, squandered the sacrifices of U.S. troops for the immediate political benefit of a sitting president, and betrayed the vulnerable populations we had endeavored to protect against a barbaric enemy.
Don’t just take it from me. “As a former Army officer, it is gravely concerning to see any president of the United States play politics with critical national security issues,” one conservative lawmaker said in 2011 of Obama’s initial decision to begin a drawdown of U.S. forces. “This decision puts both the lives of American troops and the gains made on the ground in Afghanistan at risk.”
That lawmaker was — who else? — Mike Pompeo. If the secretary has a sense of shame, he might consider apologizing to Obama for adopting the same policy he once so loudly denounced. If he has a sense of honor, he might consider resigning rather than fathering the catastrophe that may soon befall Afghanistan. I’m confident he’ll do neither.
Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.