Imagine being a U.S. citizen who believes that America should withdraw its troops from Afghanistan after nearly 18 years of increasingly pointless war. Shouldn't be too hard, since that describes 61 percent of Americans—and an eye-popping 69 percent of veterans—polled in October 2018 by YouGov.
But let's also stipulate that by some glitch in the time-space continuum you become president of the United States, and that in one of your first major post-election interviews you observe that "nothing is going well" in Afghanistan. Wouldn't you think those troops would be home more than two years after that?
This is where we find ourselves in the spring of 2019—with a president who accurately declares in his State of the Union address that "great nations do not fight endless wars," even while 14,000 of the troops under his command still suffer and inflict death more than 200 months (and 2,300 Americans killed) after U.S. forces first overthrew the Taliban government.
"We should leave Afghanistan immediately," Trump tweeted as far back as March 2013. "No more wasted lives." He was right then, and presumably still leans that way now. To invert the old Madeleine Albright quote, what's the point of these superb executive powers if you can't use them to withdraw troops?
"We have a president—the first president, really—to say that the war has long been over, there is no military solution, he's bringing the troops home," Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) says. "The problem is that several of his advisers that he has appointed don't necessarily agree with him. So they either countermand his sentiments or talk him into delaying."
Former Trump chief of staff and Obama-administration chief of U.S. Southern Command John Kelly has basically admitted to the latter tactic, telling the Los Angeles Times in an interview last year that when he arrived at the White House in August 2017, Trump "was inclined to want to withdraw from Afghanistan." Instead, Kelly and others persuaded the draft-dodging president to add troops and wait for some mythical moment when conditions would allow for a drawdown.
That has been the default position of the American political class for three administrations now. Even though George W. Bush campaigned on a more "humble" foreign policy; even though Barack Obama won against both John McCain and Hillary Clinton while opposing the Iraq War; and even though Trump in his 2015 campaign announcement speech complained that "we spent $2 trillion in Iraq…we lost thousands of lives…and we have nothing," presidents once in office cannot bring themselves to face the truth about sunk costs.
"If there is no military solution, what is one more death going to do over there?" asks Paul, who in March with Sen. Tom Udall (D–N.M.) introduced the American Forces Going Home After Noble (AFGHAN) Service Act, which would pull out all U.S. troops within one year and euthanize the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force—the legal justification for the continued deployment of combat troops in the region. "It's a mess now, but it will be a mess when we come home, too. And we just need to acknowledge that our original mission was to go after those who plotted or attacked us on 9/11, and there's frankly none of them left."
As Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report made painfully clear upon arrival in April, Trump's more impulsive and erratic desires—to fire Mueller, for instance, or to have his staffers lie to Congress—are often thwarted by subordinates leery of their propriety and/or legality. In many of those cases, Americans (especially Trump himself, given the possible legal jeopardy) should be relieved that the president's wishes did not become commands.
But it's hard to envision an authority more constitutionally explicit than the executive's discretion over the military. The fact that Trump can announce a troop withdrawal from Syria in December and yet find himself, just four months later, agreeing to keep a presence of 1,000 there speaks to how difficult it is for a president to pull back America's military reach.
"When will we stop wasting our money on rebuilding Afghanistan?" citizen Donald Trump asked in 2011. It's still a good question. The military still doesn't have any good answers.
"If we're going to wait until there's nobody left with a suicide vest in the Middle East or around the world," Paul says, "we'll wait forever."