They are still coming home in caskets draped with American flags. On a lot of nights, when the transport plane touches down, the president will be there when the bodies make their final trip to U.S. soil, saluting as another son or daughter passes by. It's a horrible thing to watch, as President Trump did in February, a mother break free from the family tent and run to the metal ramp, wailing. One word is usually unmistakable: "No!"
"I go out to Dover, and I have to -- I meet the parents," the president has said soberly. "It's the most unpleasant thing I do. The most unpleasant thing I do," he repeated. Javier Jaguar Gutierrez and Antonio Rey Rodriguez were just 28 years old when they were escorted home for the last time. Killed in combat in Afghanistan, they were some of the latest casualties of what feels like a never-ending war. For the families of more than 2,400 dead American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen, the cost is incalculable.
Before Donald Trump stood on the tarmac of Dover Air Force base as president, he promised to end the U.S.'s lengthy and deadly involvement in countries like Afghanistan. "It is also not our function to serve other nations as law enforcement agencies," he said at last month's State of the Union. "These are warfighters that we have -- the best in the world -- and they either want to fight to win or not fight at all. We are working to finally end America's longest war and bring our troops back home."
In recent weeks, that plan started to take shape as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the signing of a peace deal with the Taliban. "President Trump has allowed us to take the fight to the Taliban these last two years -- and we have done so," Pompeo explained. "It's why they, for the first time, have announced that they're prepared to break with their historically, al-Qaeda, who they've worked with much the detriment of the United States of America. You can see or read the document. The Taliban have now made the break. They said they will not permit terror to be thrust upon anyone, including the United States, from Afghanistan."
On Monday, I talked with FRC's retired Lt. General Jerry Boykin about the deal and whether we can trust what our enemy says. "First of all," General Boykin agreed, "I'm glad that the president is really working hard to try and bring this 19-year war to an end." But, he went on, everyone has to go into this plan with open eyes. "I don't believe that [President Trump] or Mike Pompeo are under any illusions [that this will be easy]. And... very clearly that this is a process" that, as far as the general is concerned, could involve a "lot of false starts."
Like a lot of people, the general isn't incredibly confident that the Taliban will keep up their end of the bargain -- which is to end their violence against U.S.-ally forces. "I'm hopeful," he said, "but quite frankly, I'm also skeptical."
Obviously, as we discussed, the entire plan is dependent on the Taliban's behavior, so there are still a lot of questions in the air. How can we trust people who have been our enemy for so long and have acted in such a way that has taken so many lives in such a brutal fashion? Especially when they're governed by the same ideology that led them to [these attacks] to begin with.
"[H]as their theology changed in this 19 years?" general asked. "No, it hasn't. It's the same theology [of that brutal, brutal regime]. Now, the idea that they will break ranks with the ISIS or with al-Qaeda specifically, I think is more than we should expect." He looked back on 1973 when Henry Kissinger closed a peace deal with the North Vietnamese. "And I've got to tell you, I was there at that time. And the last airplane had barely cleared the airspace of Vietnam when the when the North Vietnamese were making a big push down there to take the South Vietnam capital of Saigon. And then ultimately, within two years, they controlled all of Vietnam. I don't want to see that happen here."
Fortunately for America, General Boykin pointed out, we've got the right president, and "we've got the right guy at the helm of the State Department. I don't think that he is naive in any way -- and he's said it repeatedly in his press conferences: We don't trust anyone. They're going to have to meet certain requirements. So I think we're going to see this drag out for quite a bit longer."
The president campaigned on ending this conflict, so he wants to make it happen. But the other important thing to remember is, the definition of victory may be different in that region of the world. Afghanistan has been a troubled nation for decades. And the idea of nation state is almost a foreign concept for a tribal land. And that vacuum of leadership in that lawless place is always going to be filled by someone. For now, we wait and see. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) put it, "We should welcome any serious opportunity to bring greater stability to this land. But... we must make certain that the progress won through great sacrifice by Afghans and Americans is not undermined by any precipitous rush for the exits."