Years before assuming the presidency in 2016, Donald Trump had expressed strong opposition to the US presence in Afghanistan, railing against a war that began after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and ended with the Taliban-led government emerging victorious in 2021.
Trump tweeted in August 2012 that Afghanistan was a “complete waste” and that it was time for American troops to “come home.”
However, during a Republican presidential debate in March 2016, Trump’s message shifted: “Actually, when I said Afghanistan, I meant Iraq. I believe you must remain in Afghanistan for some time because you are right next to Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons, which we must protect.”
According to a new book by New York Times journalist Maggie Haberman, President Trump was apparently uncomfortable with the war in Afghanistan, and he resented having to sign ‘Killed in Action’ letters that, in his mind, linked him to a conflict that he did not personally like but still oversaw.
In his book “Confidence Man,” Haberman wrote that Trump, who had previously focused on North Korea in international affairs, wanted to end the conflict in Afghanistan — but was met with opposition.
“He became obsessed with North Korea and its nuclear capabilities, directing his National Security Council to create a menu of options ranging from annihilation to total appeasement, with a variety of options in between. One high-level option involved personal contact with the country’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong-un, but that option was not pursued for months,” she penned a letter.
“Trump cared about fulfilling a campaign promise, but aides were struck by how rattled he seemed by the number of deaths involved; over time, he came to resent every ‘Killed in Action’ letter he was forced to sign after a service member died, not wanting to attach his name to a war he despised and its needless deaths,” she continued.
According to Brown University’s Costs of War project, the war in Afghanistan cost 2,324 American troops and 3,917 contractors. It was fought under the command of four US commanders-in-chief, their defense secretaries, and the officers who reported to them.
Like Trump, Biden pledged to end the conflict and accept the possibility of Taliban victory — which occurred so quickly that Biden and his top advisors were taken aback — but it was only Trump who reportedly sought to distance himself from the responsibility of comforting the troops’ families, an emotionally draining task that many presidents have struggled with.
Trump recounted the difficulties in signing letters to the families of service members killed in conflicts in remarks from October 2019.
Trump was repeatedly embroiled in controversies involving the families of fallen soldiers as a candidate and then as president. The widow of an Army sergeant claims the president forgot her late husband’s name during a condolence call. Trump reportedly questioned the significance of a Marine’s sacrifice at his father’s Arlington National Cemetery gravesite. He even claimed to have gotten COVID-19 from a gathering of Gold Star families.
The Trump administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, in February 2020, laying the groundwork for a US withdrawal from Afghanistan that would lead to the collapse of the US-backed government.
Despite the war’s unpopularity, President Joe Biden would withdraw American troops from Afghanistan in a process widely criticized as chaotic. In August 2021, poll respondents blamed former President George W. Bush more than any other US leader for the prolonged engagement.
Trump, for his part, has harshly criticized Biden over the withdrawal, despite his administration’s efforts to negotiate the abrupt withdrawal that Biden delayed, as well as a lack of planning to evacuate Americans and Afghans who had worked with them.
If the two men face off in a rematch for the presidency in 2024, the issue will undoubtedly come up.