After a year of on-and-off talks with Taliban leaders, the State Department is reportedly nearing the announcement of a deal that could schedule a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Trump administration has not discussed the details publicly, but the goal is to stop the violence on the ground, create a political dialogue between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government, and secure commitments that future Afghan leaders will not shelter the Islamic State and Al Qaeda-linked groups in the country.
But the withdrawal may not be as complete as it seems. According to a report in Time magazine, the deal contains several “secret annexes” — provisions never meant to become public — that would allow the U.S. to maintain a CIA presence and counterterrorism force of up to 8,600 troops in the country (down from 13,000 last year) and enable it to continue conducting targeted operations there.
President Donald Trump will likely herald any election-year deal with the Taliban as the fulfillment of his promise to end “endless wars.” Democrats will rightly point out that this doesn’t make the president, who has sent an additional 14,000 troops to the Middle East and brought the U.S. to the brink of war with Iran, a peacemaker. And they’re unlikely to accept the framing that he has meaningfully “ended” a war or “brought the troops home” if the U.S. presence in Afghanistan simply continues as a smaller force focused on counterterrorism.
But Democrats will also have to grapple with the uncomfortable fact that many of their 2020 contenders have practiced a similar sleight of hand in recent debates, pledging to stop America’s forever conflicts while supporting special forces activity that has been devastating for civilians. Wednesday night’s debate, the first to include former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, may offer another opportunity for the candidates to clarify what have so far been vague or equivocal positions on these wars.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, for example, told the New York Times last week that “U.S. troops will be out by the end of her first term” but that any “remaining U.S. presence would be focused on counterterrorism and training.”
Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has called for “an end to endless war,” and in the first debate, he told moderators that U.S. servicemembers would be withdrawn from Afghanistan in the first year of his presidency. But answering a similar question in December, he stressed that “there may need to be some kind of limited special operations and intelligence capacity.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign website pledges to “end forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East” and “bring the vast majority of troops home from Afghanistan”; in the first round of Democratic debates, he said that “we should not have combat troops in Afghanistan” and that their homecoming is “long overdue.”
But in the past two debates, Biden has defended keeping a long-term special forces presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan, saying in January that there’s “no way you negotiate … with terrorists.” This month he said the U.S. needs a “small footprint” to make sure that terror groups in Afghanistan are “not able to launch more attacks.”
None of these are new positions for the candidates. Both Buttigieg and Klobuchar hinted last year that their calls for getting the U.S. out did not necessarily apply to special forces or intelligence paramilitaries. And as far back as 2009 in the Obama administration, Biden pushed back on the Pentagon’s recommendations to send an additional 40,000-plus troops to Afghanistan. Biden argued instead that the U.S. should draw down its presence to a small counterterrorism contingent capable of using targeted lethal operations against terrorists.
“Ending the forever war means ending it, not making it less transparent and less democratically accountable.”
But the shift toward explicitly defending a special forces presence downplays the danger for those who stay and erases the destructive power of “counterterrorism” operations like airstrikes and CIA-backed raids, both of which have been singled out for criticism by U.N. bodies and human rights groups. It also opens Democratic contenders to charges of hypocrisy for embracing antiwar rhetoric while defining “war” narrowly as the deployment of conventional forces.
“Ending the forever war means ending it, not making it less transparent and less democratically accountable,” Alexander McCoy, political director of the progressive veterans group Common Defense, told The Intercept. “Make no mistake, the people living in these countries and the family members of the U.S. troops who continue deploying and dying are not confused about whether they are still engaged in armed conflict.”
Politicians frequently use the language of “ground troops” or “combat troops” to make their commitments about withdrawal sound more sweeping than they actually may be, McCoy said. “The distinctions of ‘combat troops’ is more a political term than a military one,” he added. “Embassy personnel, embedded trainers, advisers, intelligence liaisons, public affairs officers, airstrike forward observers, drone operators, logistics personnel, and special forces can die in an IED explosion or mortar blast just as easily as an infantry rifleman. And they have.”
The doublespeak may cost the candidates among progressive activists. Last year, Common Defense organized a “forever war” pledge through which candidates or elected officials could vow to bring America’s post-9/11 wars to a “responsible and expedient conclusion.” The only remaining 2020 Democratic presidential candidates who signed the pledge are Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and last week, the group jointly endorsed both.
Yet while both Sanders and Warren have consistently talked about troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, neither has offered a specific roadmap for a pullout. Sanders has argued for the need to move past a global war on terror framing, and Warren has repeatedly said there is no “military solution” in Afghanistan. Both have stressed their preference for diplomatic rather than military engagement. But neither has laid out a detailed plan that closes the door on counterterrorism operations in the intermediate term.
A Buttigieg aide told The Intercept that Buttigieg believes in the role of “a small special ops/intelligence capability as part of multilateral efforts in places like Afghanistan” but that his views depend on this situation and are not generic. Spokespeople for Klobuchar, Biden, Sanders, and Warren did not respond to a request for comment.
Candidates may be looking to use the terminology of ending wars without looking past military solutions altogether, Stephen Miles, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Win Without War, told The Intercept.
“What you see now is candidates trying to adopt and co-opt that terminology and that phrasing, without actually getting into the substance of what it means to finally, truly turn the page on the global war on terror,” Miles said. “Ending endless wars has never been about the specific number of troops deployed or troops in a given country. It’s about the post-9/11 mindset that says the way to deal with our problems is a military-first solution.”
Trivializing a “special forces” or “intelligence” role in the Afghanistan conflict also has the effect of downplaying forms of violence that have been tremendously destructive toward Afghan civilians. In the past six months, military action that U.S. policymakers frequently describe as “counterterrorism” has been some of the most deadly.
In September, a drone strike killed 30 workers on a pine nut farm in Afghanistan who were resting after a day in the fields. In December, an American drone strike in Khost province killed five people, including a woman who had just given birth. And the International Rescue Committee said that a January airstrike killed a family of five in Badghis province, including a 9-year-old enrolled in one of the humanitarian organization’s education programs. A U.N. report estimated that in the first half of 2019, American airstrikes killed more than 363 people and injured 156.
Under international law, limiting the number of U.S. ground troops in harm’s way doesn’t determine whether a war has ended, Andrea Prasow, acting Washington director for Human Rights Watch, told The Intercept.
“It doesn’t change the existence of a conflict, and it doesn’t change the impact it has on people in Afghanistan who suffer from U.S. kinetic activity, whether by the military or the CIA,” Prasow said.
Under Trump, much of the paramilitary activity in the country now takes place as a coordinated partnership between Afghan militias and the CIA. Some of the militias are nominally under the supervision of the Afghan National Directorate of Security, or NDS, but they’re widely understood to be on the payroll and under the control of the CIA, and their night raids have been singled out for criticism by human rights groups and the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or UNAMA.
In 2017, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo said that the CIA would have to become “aggressive, vicious, unforgiving, relentless” to be successful and that “we must every minute be focused on crushing our enemies.”
Journalists and human rights groups have documented numerous raids targeting NGOs, offices, and residences, and what villagers frequently describe as summary executions. A CIA-backed militia repeatedly attacked medical clinics run by a Swedish nongovernmental organization, killing patients and staff, The Intercept reported in October. Local villagers repeatedly describe Americans accompanying Afghan forces during these raids.
“[S]earch operations carried out by these forces have significantly higher civilian casualty figures as well as higher death rates in comparison to operations carried out by the Afghan National Army,” according to a UNAMA report released last year.
In response to a damning report by Human Rights Watch last year, the CIA did not deny the American partnership with the militias. Instead, it emphasized the Taliban’s violence and said the militant group uses “dishonest claims of non-combatant casualties as propaganda weapons.”
In the post-9/11 war on terror, special forces have increasingly been seen as a miracle solution for killing terrorists without bogging the U.S. down in prolonged military conflicts. But many argue that the pace of missions in places as far flung as Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan have stretched the resources of U.S. Special Operations Command. A monthslong review recently concluded that “the continuous global demand for [special forces] capabilities, combined with a [special forces] culture focused on force employment and mission accomplishment, has led to a sustained high operational tempo which challenges unit integrity and leader development, and erodes readiness.”