The war in Afghanistan has lasted so long that kids born after it began are now old enough to fight in it. Now, news that US President Donald Trump could approve the first step to a US peace deal with the Taliban may herald a fragile but significant foreign policy breakthrough — and bring some American troops home in an election year.
The roots of US involvement in Afghanistan stretch back to 2001, after the Taliban offered a haven for 9/11 attack mastermind Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda fighters. “They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate,” then-President George W. Bush said, launching a war that would far outlast his presidency.
Cue 20 years of bloodshed, lost focus, costly offensives, troop surges and withdrawals, busted new plans and corruption that swallowed efforts to build Afghan democracy over three US presidencies. Bin Laden is dead — but so are tens of thousands of Afghan civilians, and more than 3,500 US and allied troops. American voters have every right to ask: What is the point of staying any longer?
But hopes for withdrawal must be tempered. The first anticipated step toward peace — an agreed “reduction of violence” — is so shaky that US military top brass won’t even call it a ceasefire. Taliban leaders may not be able to control commanders on the ground. Rushing to get US troops home could leave Kabul vulnerable to another Taliban takeover, and make the country a haven for terror groups.
Such an outcome could waste all the US sacrifices over the last 20 years. But if they don’t get out, American leaders must justify losing even more troops for a messy status quo that satisfies no one.
‘Reduction in violence proposal’
There is a “reduction in violence proposal on the table” for Afghanistan, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday, with little further explanation. The importance of that bureaucratese had already been explained last week by Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as CNN’s Barbara Starr reported. “Again there’s the hope word, again I usually don’t use that, but I hope that that continues along, and it’s never going to be perfect,” Hyten said on Friday.
“That’s why it wasn’t called a ceasefire. It was called a reduction in violence because that country is so dispersed and communications so difficult across that you’re always going to have issues, but I hope that it continues that way and a deal will take place this year.”
What a budget tells you
Budget proposals are an MRI of an administration’s ideology.
Every year, the US President gets to lay out how he’d spend America’s cash — if he didn’t face the pesky reality of Congress, which actually has the power of the purse. Trump’s 2021 budget, unveiled this week, provides a rare look at the thinking in his White House, and offers some election-year openings to his opponents.
This financial blueprint would have America living high on deficit spending and debt, leaving future administrations little leeway for stimulus spending if an economic crisis hits. Encapsulating the President’s “America First” theme, the Pentagon would get a spending boost, while foreign aid is slashed by 21% and the already gutted Environmental Protection Agency loses 31%.
In Trump’s dream budget, there is more badly needed money for veterans programs, but less government assistance toward food and medicine for other low-income Americans. He would also end a program that forgives student loans for graduates who pay on time for 10 years and work in the government.
By contrast, the same budget assists America’s highest earners — including Trump and his family — by extending their income and estate tax cuts beyond 2025, when they are due to expire. There’s more money for his signature border wall, and $12 billion earmarked for a splashy NASA plan to put astronauts back on the moon by 2024 — the same year he’d be wrapping up his second term, coincidentally.
Much of this has no chance of becoming law, since Congress is operating on a pre-agreed budget deal and Democrats control half of Capitol Hill. But Trump’s budget reveals how he will run for reelection, and suggests confidence that he can fog the facts when Democrats accuse him of turning his back on the poor.
The ones who got away
Not without his Yang Gang
Andrew Yang suspended his presidential campaign Tuesday after a poor showing in New Hampshire, but keep an eye on the political next steps of this businessman and his enthusiastic “Yang Gang.”
Also quitting the race on Tuesday was Colorado’s Sen. Michael Bennet, whose unflappable, easygoing attitude became a cliché he couldn’t escape. Bennet cast himself as someone who could work across the aisle — but voters showed little interest.
Late to the party
The third to go after New Hampshire, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick suspended his campaign on Wednesday after failing to get even 1% of the votes. He had previously noted that his late entry to the race might be a handicap — it now seems clear that he was too late to this party.