WASHINGTON — Pick a corridor in the Pentagon and, if conversation permits, hear how the U.S. can extract itself from Afghanistan by summer.
The folks in another corridor talk of a five-year withdrawal plan. Up a floor and around the building it is a three-year operation. Some agree with members of Congress and President Trump, that no matter how long the U.S. stays it will not matter — so leave now.
All different timetables, all with a similar baseline: the U.S. is not winning and it needs a way out.
The latest proposal comes from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who plans to introduce legislation that would direct the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and Iraq and pay each veteran of those conflicts a one-time bonus of $2,500.
“It’s important to know when it’s time to declare victory and leave a war,” Paul said Tuesday. “I think that time is long past.”
Paul’s legislation may not find many supporters, as the Pentagon publicly says it will stay until the Afghan government and its principal foe, the Taliban, reach a peace agreement. The key condition of such an agreement is that the Taliban recognizes the government in Kabul as the legitimate government.
Yet if there is any momentum in the Afghan war – a dangerous suggestion, many Pentagon officials say — it is that of finding a way to permit U.S. troops to depart.
“In Afghanistan, the President’s South Asia Strategy is working,” Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee Thursday.
“The efforts of our Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation, Ambassador Zal Khalilzad, are demonstrating that there is a path to progress — but there is much left to do to move toward our endstate of reconciliation between the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban,” Votel said. “Toward this end — our military efforts are focused on supporting the (Afghan military) and providing Ambassador Khalilzad the maximum military pressure and leverage to support his diplomatic efforts to establish a framework that will lead to an Afghan dialogue, a reduction in violence and ultimately a negotiated settlement.”
Votel reminded the committee how “Afghanistan was used as a platform to attack our citizens and homeland in 2001, and we have an enduring vital national interest to ensure this never happens again.” Thus the critical point for the Pentagon is being prepared to deal with Afghanistan “as long as violent extremists can operate from this region,” he said.
Senior military officials, speaking on background in interviews over the past three weeks, generally think five years is the most workable number for an exit strategy. That would be conditioned on a peace treaty reached sometime in 2019.
Under that timetable, about half of the 14,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan would leave as soon as feasible, with the others remaining in advisory positions and reduced profile as they slowly depart, these officers said.
In anticipation of a peace deal — or an order from President Trump to withdraw — these officers are among those envisioning plans on how to orchestrate a withdrawal.