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Trump And Afghanistan: New President, Same Policy

Afghanistan Troops

As the initial reports indicated, last night’s speech at Fort Meyer by President Trump announced an Afghanistan war policy that in the end constitutes much of the same thing we’ve seen from his predecessors for the past decade or more:

WASHINGTON — President Trump put forward on Monday a long-awaited strategy for resolving the nearly 16-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, but he declined to specify either the number of troops that would be committed, or the conditions by which he would judge the success of their mission there.

In a nationally televised prime-time speech to troops at Fort Myer, Va., Mr. Trump said there would be no “blank check” for the American engagement in Afghanistan. But in announcing his plan, Mr. Trump deepened American involvement in a military mission that has bedeviled his predecessors and that he once called futile.

“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts,” Mr. Trump said. “But all my life, I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”

After what he described as a lengthy and exhaustive deliberation culminating in a meeting with his war cabinet at Camp David, Mr. Trump said that he had been convinced that “a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda.”

Speaking to a military audience at a base outside Washington, Mr. Trump declared, “In the end, we will win.”

But he did not define what victory would look like, nor did he explain how his path would be different from what he labeled the failed strategies of previous presidents.

Mr. Trump campaigned for the White House promising to extricate the United States from foreign conflicts, and many of the steps that he announced Monday have been proposed by previous administrations.

He portrayed the strategy as a stark break with the Obama administration, arguing that while his predecessor set artificial timetables for American involvement in Afghanistan, his strategy would be a comprehensive, conditions-based regional approach that would aim for a political solution there.

Part of the plan is to deploy more American troops to Afghanistan to continue to train Afghan forces there, with the goal of convincing the Taliban — which has recently gained substantial ground in the war — that they could not win on the battlefield.

Mr. Trump said that the United States would put significant new pressure on Pakistan to crack down on the terrorist sanctuaries that line its border with Afghanistan. His comments could open a turbulent new chapter in relations with Pakistan, which has veered since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks from being an ally in the fight against terrorism to a haven in which Osama bin Laden hid out until he was killed in 2011.

By refusing to place a number on troops or to specify benchmarks for success, Mr. Trump was in essence shielding himself against potential backlash from his political base and from the American public, which has grown weary of the war.

The president heaped contempt on his predecessor’s strategy, promising that he would avoid President Barack Obama’s mistakes.

But in substance, Mr. Trump’s strategy was not all that different from Mr. Obama’s, relying on a mix of conventional military force and diplomatic pressure on Pakistan. One administration official conceded that there was to be no major change in the mix of American forces operating in Afghanistan, and that the priorities would remain training Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism operations.

In some ways, Mr. Trump’s emphasis on a stripped-down counterterrorism mission was reminiscent of the approach advocated by former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and ultimately rejected by Mr. Obama.

“We are not nation-building again,” Mr. Trump said. “We are killing terrorists.”

Whatever the echoes, Mr. Trump projected a far more bellicose tone than Mr. Obama. He promised that he would loosen restrictions on American soldiers to enable them to hunt down terrorists, which he labeled “thugs and criminals and predators, and — that’s right — losers.”

“The killers need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms,” the president said. “Retribution will be fast and powerful.”

(…)

Mr. Trump promised to launch an intensive diplomatic and economic initiative, but he does so from a position of acute weakness at the State Department, which has yet to place an ambassador in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, and scrapped the office of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mr. Trump’s reference to a strategic partnership with India also has implications for Pakistan, which has a deeply antagonistic relationship with its neighbor.

An estimated 8,400 American troops are currently stationed in Afghanistan, most assigned to an approximately 13,000-strong international force that is training and advising the Afghan military. About 2,000 American troops are tasked with carrying out counterterrorism missions along with Afghan forces against groups like the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate, the Islamic State in Khorasan.

Mr. Trump’s aides, previewing the speech, said it would include new steps to pressure neighboring Pakistan to shut down the sanctuaries there for the Taliban and other militants, a goal Republican and Democratic administrations have pursued for years with little success.

They also said that continued American military involvement and economic assistance in Afghanistan would be contingent on steps by the country’s leaders in Kabul to rein in rampant corruption — another Western aspiration that has repeatedly been dashed in the country, parts of which have been largely lawless for decades.

The strategy comes with steep risks for Mr. Trump, potentially increasing American troops without yielding many military gains in a conflict that has proved intractable. Still, United States military and intelligence officials have argued that doing nothing in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are increasingly gaining ground, is not an option.

(…)

Mr. Trump’s decision was a victory of sorts for Mr. Mattis and Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, who had argued of dire consequences if the United States did not act quickly to stabilize Afghanistan. The Pentagon had long pointed to the return of extremists in Iraq shortly after the American military withdrew forces after that eight-year war, and warned that any advances in Afghanistan could similarly be lost without a stable troop presence.

Some Afghanistan experts praised the decision to do away with “arbitrary” withdrawal deadlines. But others were critical of the idea that a political settlement could come after the Taliban and other militants had been beaten back on the battlefield — a notion that military commanders have insisted would work in the past.

“It didn’t work then,” said John Dempsey, a former senior State Department official who worked on Afghanistan and Pakistan. “And it especially won’t work now.”

Politico notes that Trump’s “new” policy sounds a lot like the old ones and is therefore unlikely to have a significantly different impact on a war that will begin its seventeenth year in less than two months:

{S]ending thousands of additional U.S. troops to train and fight alongside Afghan security forces and forcing allies like Pakistan to do more is unlikely by itself to turn around all the gains the Taliban have made in recent years, military strategists said.

Seth Jones, director of the international Security and Defense Policy Center at the government-funded RAND Corporation who advises the Pentagon, described the new approach as “some slight changes around the edges.”

“But it is hard to see how these changes are going to significantly change the outcome of the campaign,” he added.

Indeed, the approach mostly represents a reinforcement of the existing one, making it the latest in a series of strategies over the past 16 years that critics assert have failed to bring stability, at a cost of more than 2,400 dead U.S. soldiers and untold billions in taxpayer dollars.

“What those extra U.S. forces mean is that we’ll have guys with slightly more forward Afghan units and we’ll be able to deliver air and intel support to those units. Don’t underestimate that,” said Jason Dempsey, a former officer who served as a combat adviser in Afghanistan. “But let’s not believe for a second that they’ll be with those units long enough or with enough consistency to make a significant difference in how those units fight on their own or change the underlying dysfunction of the Afghan military.”

While Trump tried to differentiate the policy he announced last night from former President Obama’s, the truth of the matter is that it very much resembles what we have seen over the past decade from both Obama and former President George W. Bush. Like both of his predecessors, Trump finds himself choosing to keep American forces committed in a battle that has been going on for nearly sixteen years ago, but which has changed significantly from what it started out to be in the weeks after the September 11th attacks. Back then, of course, the primary mission was to battle al Qaeda and to either bring its leaders to justice or kill them in response to the most serious attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor. To a large degree, that battle was over within a few years after it began as al Qaeda’s bases inside the country were destroyed its members and supporters fled, and its leadership being hunted down. During that time, hundreds of al Qaeda fighters and senior leaders were killed or captured and placed in custody in the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, including Khalid Shiekh Mohammed, the mastermind behind the September 11th attacks. Over subsequent years, the battle against al Qaeda turned from a military mission to an intelligence operation as the remaining leaders were tracked down and, in many cases, attacked and either taken prisoner or killed by American forces. This effort reached its apex, of course, in 2011 when Osama bin Laden was located and killed in a late-night raid by a Navy Seal team on his hiding place in Pakistan.

During that same period of time, and beginning roughly in the final years of the Bush Administration, the military mission in Afghanistan shifted from one that was aimed primarily at terrorists to one aimed at helping the fledgling Afghan government in its ongoing fight against a Taliban insurgency that never disappeared despite the fact that it was driven from power soon after the war began. Instead of disappearing, the Taliban returned to the old form. Retreating into the mountainous tribal regions of the country where they came from and launching many of the same kind of guerilla style attacks that the mujahadeen that they emerged from did during the Soviet occupation of the country that began in 1979. As a result, America’s role in the war shifted from a counter-terrorism role to a counter-insurgency one in which we were fighting principally against the Taliban rather than al Qaeda, and helping to prop up a central government that even today seems to have only de jure control of the areas outside of the major cities in the country. While that has been met with some success, and the Kabul government was able to successfully transit from many years under the control of President Hamid Karzai to new leadership via an election that went off without too much controversy, the fact of the matter remains that the Taliban remains as strong as it has been and there’s little reason to believe that Trump’s policies are going to be any more successful than Bush’s or Obama’s in changing that fact.

As The New York Times notes in the linked article, the President was rather short on details in his speech last night, and that’s where things are going to be important going forward. For example, outside of some empty rhetoric, he did not give any indication of what victory would look like and when it might be the case that we could once again be able to consider bringing troops home rather than ramping up our commitment. Similarly, he failed to indicate what kind of indications he would be looking for either on the ground or from the Afghan government to indicate that our strategy was actually succeeding. Additionally, Trump failed to give us any idea of how many troops he was contemplating sending to complement the roughly 10,000 troops who remain in the country right now, nor did he say whether or not he would leave open the possibility of further additions to the American troop commitment. He also failed to provide any estimate of how much this is going to cost, a significant consideration given the fact that we’ve already spent roughly $1 trillion on either war expenditures or financial assistance to the government in Kabul. Additionally, he also failed to address the question of whether or not any of our allies, most specifically including the United Kingdom, which has its own contingent of troops in Afghanistan as part of the international force that has been there since the beginning, would be providing any additional forces to support the plan that he outlined in his speech. Finally, he didn’t address the question of whether and how he might consult Congress with regard to the new moves he would be making, and whether or not Congress was on board with the plan. Without answers to these and other questions, Trump’s plan is woefully incomplete and it appears that it is just as likely to keep us in the Afghan quagmire we’ve been in for too long now.

In Politico Magazine, Susan Glasser argues that Trump’s plan shows that the United States is out of ideas in Afghanistan and simply trying new variations on the same strategy:

President Trump proved one thing beyond the shadow of a doubt in his Afghanistan strategy speech Monday night: After nearly 16 years of fighting America’s longest war, there are no new ideas.

He called his plan “dramatically different.”

It wasn’t. The only thing that seemed a striking change from his two presidential predecessors’ approach to the war launched after the attacks of September 11, 2001, was Trump’s escalatory rhetoric. He repeatedly vowed to “win” a conflict that his Defense Secretary James Mattis told Congress recently “we are not winning” and sharply criticized Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan, a troublesome ally Trump excoriated for offering “safe haven” to terrorists.

(…)

But beyond the scathing language and an open-ended pledge to “fight to win,” Trump offered few details about a plan that administration sources have said involves the sending of a few thousand more troops to Afghanistan. The Pentagon deems such a move necessary to avoid the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul but it would hardly be a force capable of dramatically changing facts on the ground a few years after a surge to some 100,000 American troops at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency failed to do so.

How the victory would come Trump did not say, although he appeared to issue an ultimatum to Pakistan to cease its support for militants “immediately,” suggested there were no “arbitrary timetables” for American withdrawal aside from unspecific conditions being met, vowed not to micromanage troops from Washington, and pledged not to spend any more money or effort on failed nation-building attempts.

Yes, we will defeat them, and we will defeat them handily,” Trump said.

Not long ago I interviewed Laurel Miller, who served as America’s top diplomat for Afghanistan and Pakistan until the end of June, when she left the State Department and the Trump administration shut down her office. Here is what she had to say on the subject of winning, a sentiment echoed by numerous other current and former U.S. officials with whom I’ve spoken about this in recent weeks:

“I don’t think there is any serious analyst of the situation in Afghanistan who believes that the war is winnable. It’s possible to prevent the defeat of the Afghan government and prevent military victory by the Taliban, but this is not a war that’s going to be won, certainly not in any time horizon that’s relevant to political decision-making in Washington.”

Still, winning is what Trump offered, along with a trademark helping of bombast, blame-casting and name-calling.

A few hours before the speech, I spoke with one former senior official with much experience in the region whose forecast for what Trump would say was dead on.

“Unless he was going to withdraw U.S. troops, you really didn’t have any other choice,” the official told me. “There is no other option that isn’t too risky. If you do nothing at all in a context where security continues to deteriorate, then you just narrow your set of options for the full four years…. If you pull out precipitously you’re definitely going to have a crisis on your hands. So a modest increase stabilizes the situation where it is and prevents the defeat of the government. It’s unsatisfying but it at least preserves your options.”

And so Trump has spent months learning exactly what the Afghan war has taught so many other American leaders in the decade and a half since the United States went charging in to Kabul, not to mention generations of British and Russian generals before them: It’s easy to get in to a conflict in Afghanistan, and hard to leave.

Daniel Larison, meanwhile, criticized the President for breaking away from previous comments where he seemed to favor a more non-interventionist foreign policy:

If Trump is embracing a default interventionist position now, it is because he has no firm principles and never opposes foreign wars when it matters in any case. He didn’t run against any of our ongoing wars, but took easy, self-serving positions against previous wars that he had supported in the past. His overall foreign policy record in office shows that he prefers military action and threats to other courses of action, so it can’t have been that hard to talk him into another pointless troop increase. Escalating in Afghanistan is undoubtedly the wrong decision, and the U.S. will be trapped in fighting a war it won’t win for years to come because of it, but such is the sad and warped state of our foreign policy debate that Trump’s escalation will be greeted with applause across much of Washington.

In the end, I think Trump was left with little choice about how to proceed. His past comments questioning our commitment in Afghanistan were not, as Larison notes, really a firm commitment to a policy of noninterventionism nor did he ever explicitly promise that he would end that commitment. In the end, the criticisms we did hear from him had more to do with attacking former President Obama and Hillary Clinton, who helped craft the policy that Obama enacted in 2009 and 2010, then it did with offering a different way forward in a nation that has baffled military superpowers ranging from Alexander The Great’s Macedonia thousands of years ago to the British Empire in the 19th Century and the Soviet Union in the 20th Century. If he’d done nothing, then he would bear responsibility for the policies of his predecessor completely. If he’d chosen withdrawal, he’d be faced with the risk of being labeled as having “lost” Afghanistan at some point in the future. Add to this the fact that he has filled his foreign and military policy team, as well as the position of Chief of Staff, with retired Generals, virtually guaranteed that he’d agree to a policy that continued the status quo but which includes sufficient differences for him to claim that he was trying something new.

In the end, it’s hard to say what we should do in Afghanistan at this point. Doing nothing doesn’t seem to be an option since the current policy clearly isn’t having much of an impact on the risk that the central government won’t last and that the country will enter a period of chaos that will benefit both al Qaeda and ISIS. At the same time, pulling out completely without ensuring that the Afghans can competently defend themselves would seem to guarantee the same thing at some point in the future. Some people have suggested that we’ll just have to resign ourselves to the fact that we need to have a semi-permanent military presence in Afghanistan just like we do in places such as Europe and Japan even though World War II ended 72 years ago. There are significant differences between those situations and what we’re dealing with today, though. In the case of Europe and Japan, there is a case to be made in favor of forward-deployment of forces that may be needed elsewhere. The difference in Afghanistan isn’t so much that there are troops there but that they are engaging in a mission far beyond the one they were deployed for in October 2001. Our current mission there has almost nothing to do with al Qaeda and ISIS and everything to do with propping up the largely corrupt government in Kabul. Trump said that it wasn’t “nation building,” but that’s exactly what it is and it’s happening in a place where it’s highly unlikely to succeed.

If you missed the speech, you can read the transcript or watch it in the embed below:

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. teve tory says:

    for a while this was leading Breitbart: Trump’s ‘America First’ Base Unhappy with Flip-Flop Afghanistan Speech

    but a few hrs later they got even more pissed off and now this is the breitbart headline:

    Amnesty First! McClatchy: Trump Aides Plot Big Immigration Deal — That Breaks a Campaign Promise

    It’s almost like trump’s just an opportunistic liar who scams his dumb followers…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  2. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    So after campaigning against all these wars that are wasting blood and treasure, Trump has escalated our involvment in Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Iraq, and now Afghanistan.
    Not to mention his war of words with his man-child equal in N. Korea.

    In the end, I think Trump was left with little choice about how to proceed.

    This.
    Trump is finding out what all his diumb-as-fvck supporters can’t figure out…that this stuff is hard.
    Immigration, Health Care, Foreign Policy, Taxes, all of it. And Trump is going to be worse at it than most because he is just as stupid as his dumb-as-fvck supporters…JKB, Guarneri, J-E-N-O-S, etc…I’m talking about you.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  3. Slugger says:

    Imperial states always have a few soldiers in combat somewhere. Sounds like Trump does not intend to exceed 20,000 soldiers in this campaign. Whether that number can accomplish much spread over a country of 252,000 square miles and 33 million people can be debated.
    Are there estimates of the projected dollar cost?
    Does anyone know what the British and Soviet publics were told to justify their wars?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Stupid is as stupid does, and this was always stupid. War on the cheap? You get what you pay for, and what we are paying for is more of the same. Bush was wrong to go there. Obama was wrong to stay there. Did anyone expect the empty headed manbaby now in the WH to do better?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  5. Mikey says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: If his supporters with whom I’m acquainted are any indication, yes, they expect he will do better.

    That his plan varies little from his predecessor’s is irrelevant–it will work this time simply because the God-Emperor is in charge now.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  6. gVOR08 says:

    I believe DoD requested 65 billion for war spending in 2017, including Afghanistan. WIKI lists a GDP of 20 billion. With a few years war expenditures we could buy the place. Facetious…. But it shows the huge disparity between what we’re accomplishing and what we’re spending.

    Maybe it would work better if we concentrated on improving the place instead of blowing it up. After all, as someone pointed out, Taliban is more a life style choice than an organization. Trying to overcome the Taliban in Afghanistan is like trying to overcome the Rednecks in Georgia. And who signs a surrender binding on them?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  7. michael reynolds says:

    I’m sure there’s already a term for this, but until I hear better I’m calling it Amateur’s Optimism, the belief of people who’ve never done Job X that Job X is really quite simple and can be properly done by anyone willing to ‘think outside the box.’

    In reality Job X – which applies to pretty much every job – is always harder than it looks, and presidenting the United States is the most extreme example. It is a very hard job. Which is why electing loud-mouthed cretins is not a great idea.

    So far our loudmouthed cretin has discovered that healthcare is hard, and Obama did the best anyone could, given the political realities.

    Now he’s discovered that Afghanistan is also hard, and he’s now opted to continue Bush-Obamaism by giving the can yet another kick.

    The cretin is still too clueless to figure out that he has annihilated his credibility and with it any claim to leadership. He still thinks he can hire and fire his way to competence. But we passed Peak Trump a couple months ago, more and more people are whispering about mental illness, his polls are steady in the overall but mushy even as opposition hardens. He’s the weakest president in my lifetime. Nixon was a colossus by comparison.

    Even without Russia, Trump’s regime is a dumpster fire. Even without his endless corruption and nepotism Trump is a failure. Even without his support for Nazis he’s lost any possible claim to authority. It’s taken him just a few months to go from start to crash-and-burn. Yuge failure. Best self-immolation ever in history. Winning! MAGA!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  8. teve tory says:

    Sounds like a variant of Dunning-Kruger: Too clueless about something to have any idea how clueless one is.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  9. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    When El Rushbo’s refought Civil War has been over for generations and the knowledge that America was for one brief shining moment a haven for freedom instead of the Neo-Nazi bedlam it has become, Donald Eric Barron Trump IV will be turning over the reins of power to Donald Eric Barron Trump V and Donald V’s comments on the ongoing push for victory in Afghanistan will go:

    What those extra U.S. forces mean is that we’ll have guys with slightly more forward Afghan units and we’ll be able to deliver air and intel support to those units. Don’t underestimate that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Actually, I was hoping (not enough to actually vote for him, mind you). My big mistake was not realizing that everything he says is just fluffing.

    At my age, I shoulda knowed better.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    “The cretin is still too clueless to figure out that he has annihilated his credibility and with it any claim to leadership.”

    But only among people who were unwilling to grant him any credibility and claim to leadership in the first place. He may still win in 2020 if he runs. Until his unfavorables with the GOP rise, I will peg his chance at probable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. CSK says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker:

    Possibly. But…Breitbart seems to have declared war against Trump as well as Javanka, McMaster, and Powell. Now they’re comparing him unfavorably to Angela Merkel. And they hate Merkel.

    The next big feud is going to erupt between the pro-Bannon Trumpkins and the anti-Bannon Trumpkins.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker: It seems simple to us non-political types, “This is stupid, I mean really stupid, but we have got to stop shooting ourselves in the face!” The problem is there are a lot of institutional forces wholly invested in the “shooting off our faces” market. Such that even if a President came along who actually wanted to end the stupidity** s/he would find it really hard to do.

    **and not for even an instant do I think trump ever really wanted to stop any war any where, he just wanted his name in the marquis lights.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  14. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    The problem is there are a lot of institutional forces wholly invested in the “shooting off our faces” market. Such that even if a President came along who actually wanted to end the stupidity** s/he would find it really hard to do.

    Yeah, I keep forgetting that. Never was good at the political part of my job as a teacher, either. It’s probably why I never got tenure.

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  15. Mikey says:

    I find it truly amazing to think there’s a non-trivial possibility my 13-year-old son, or one or more of his middle-school classmates, could serve in a war that started three years before they were born.

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  16. Mister Bluster says:

    @Mikey:..I find it truly amazing to think there’s a non-trivial possibility my 13-year-old son, or one or more of his middle-school classmates, could serve in a war that started three years before they were born.

    “That’s Too Bad” President Pud

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  17. teve tory says:

    I find it truly amazing to think there’s a non-trivial possibility my 13-year-old son, or one or more of his middle-school classmates, could serve in a war that started three years before they were born.

    I read at Fake News Vox or the Failing TalkingPointsMemo or somewhere that 2019 will see the first soldier deployed to afghanistan who wasn’t yet born when 9/11 happened.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. teve tory says:

    Donald J. Trump‏Verified account
    @realDonaldTrump

    Do not allow our very stupid leaders to sign a deal that keeps us in Afghanistan through 2024-with all costs by U.S.A. MAKE AMERICA GREAT!

    5:12 AM – 21 Nov 2013

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0