America is always at war. On October 7, 2001, it was Operation Enduring Freedom – war in Afghanistan. We’re still there. On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and we did something about that. That was Harry Truman’s war, but in 1952 we elected a new president – Dwight Eisenhower – and with the United Nations’ acceptance of India’s proposed Korean War armistice, the UN Command, which we led, ceased fire with the battle line at the 38th parallel. We had an armistice, and a Demilitarized Zone, and two Koreas. It’s been that way ever since. We signed that Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953, to end the fighting – but that war is on pause. That war never ended, not officially. We’re still there.
Afghanistan is now Korea. That’s what President Trump just announced. The Washington Post’s David Nakamura and Abby Phillip cover that:
President Trump outlined a revised vision for the U.S. war in Afghanistan on Monday, pledging to end a strategy of “nation-building” and instead institute a policy aimed more squarely at addressing the terrorist threat that emanates from the region.
“I share the American people’s frustration,” he said. “I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money – and, most importantly, lives – trying to rebuild countries in our own image instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations.”
But Trump provided few specifics about his policy and how much the U.S. military commitment in the region would increase as a result, insisting that conditions on the ground would determine troop levels and strategy.
Still, this was a change:
Trump’s decision to further commit to the nation’s longest war, rather than withdraw, reflects a significant shift in his approach to Afghanistan since taking office and marks a new willingness to take greater ownership of a protracted conflict that he had long dismissed as a waste of time and resources. As a candidate, Trump denounced Afghanistan as a “total disaster” and railed that the costly conflict in Central Asia drained enormous resources at a time of more pressing needs at home for American taxpayers.
“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like to follow my instincts,” Trump said in his first prime-time address, delivered from the Fort Myer military base in Arlington, Va. “I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk of the Oval Office.”
Yes, they are:
In his speech Monday, Trump laid out a strategy that included pressuring Pakistan to do more to stop terrorists from finding safe haven within its borders. He also said that India would play a greater role in providing economic and developmental support.
India and Pakistan have been at it since 1948 – the Khyber Pass has been one of many issues – and now they both have nuclear missiles aimed at each other. If we use India to help us, Pakistan will align themselves with the Russians, who are now openly supporting the Taliban in northern Afghanistan. Trump didn’t mention the Russians – and of course Trump asked all of Obama’s ambassadors to leave and he hasn’t yet nominated a new ambassador to India – or to South Korea for that matter. We have no “point man” in India at the moment.
The state department has been gutted too – no Permanent Undersecretary for Arms Control or for South East Asian Affairs. No one has been nominated for much of anything. Two thirds of the building is empty. This tricky diplomacy is now impossible – and after we pulled out of the Paris climate accord and Trump waffled on NATO – we might defend NATO members, or we might not, depending on the cash they put up – our allies might tell us to go pound sand. Trump has also delegated much of what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson duties to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, so foes and allies don’t really know who to talk to about these things. Perhaps they should call Ivanka – she can relay stuff to her husband.
This is a mess, but Trump doesn’t think so:
He called his approach “principled realism” and portrayed it as in keeping with the “America First” approach of his administration. He pledged that U.S. troops would have a clear definition of victory in Afghanistan, but offered only a broad outline of what that would mean.
“Our troops will fight to win,” Trump said. “From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over the country, and stopping mass terror attacks against Americans before they emerge.”
Yeah, yeah – we’ve heard it before – but one man was pleased:
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has urged Trump to articulate a new strategy for the region, called the speech “long overdue.” But he praised Trump for shifting the nation away from the Obama administration’s approach.
“I believe the President is now moving us well beyond the prior administration’s failed strategy of merely postponing defeat,” McCain said in a statement. “It is especially important that the newly announced strategy gives no timeline for withdrawal, rather ensures that any decision to reduce our commitment in the future will be based on conditions on the ground.”
John McCain wasn’t paying attention:
Democrats criticized Trump for not offering more specifics in his speech.
“Tonight, the President said he knew what he was getting into and had a plan to go forward. Clearly, he did not,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “The President’s announcement is low on details but raises serious questions. When President Trump says there will be no ceiling on the number of troops and no timeline for withdrawal, he is declaring an open-ended commitment of American lives with no accountability to the American people.”
Afghanistan is now Korea, but Trump was in a tight spot:
Trump’s task Monday night was magnified by his need to convince his core supporters, many of whom responded to his campaign calls to put “America first” by reducing foreign interventionism in the Middle East and Central Asia. His speech came just days after the departure of chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who had advocated for replacing U.S. troops with private security contractors.
In a nod to concerns among his supporters that his decision marks a retrenchment in Afghanistan, Trump insisted that the United States would not provide “unlimited” support and resources.
“Our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check,” Trump said. “The government of Afghanistan must carry their share of the military, political, and economic burden.”
But the strategy Trump described Monday night amounted to an open-ended approach, which is likely to worry voters who supported him, in part, because of his promise to scale back the United States’ commitments abroad.
This really is a no-win situation:
Trump has been acutely aware of the limited options he faces and has blamed his predecessors – principally Obama – for leaving him what he described Monday as a “bad and very complex hand.”
Citing Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq in 2011, Trump said he would not consider such a strategy in Afghanistan.
“A hasty withdrawal will create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al-Qaeda, would instantly fill,” he said. “We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq.”
That would be this:
Even before his campaign, Trump was skeptical about the war. “When will we stop wasting our money on rebuilding Afghanistan?” he tweeted in 2011. “We must rebuild our country first.”
As a candidate, he argued for a more isolationist approach to foreign policy. Recent foreign wars, he told his supporters, had drained the United States of blood and treasure at the expense of efforts such as education and infrastructure at home.
“So we’re on track now to spend, listen to this, $6 trillion – could have rebuilt our country twice – altogether, on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Middle East,” Trump said during a speech in Cleveland during the campaign. “Meanwhile, massive portions of our country are in a state of total disrepair.”
Steve Bannon had been whispering in his ear:
Within the White House, Bannon’s opposition to sending more troops to Afghanistan helped fuel strife with other Trump aides, including national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who supported the modest troop surge.
Bannon had advocated for a proposal to replace U.S. troops with private security contractors, an idea floated by Erik Prince, the founder of the controversial contracting firm Blackwater USA and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Military leaders largely opposed the idea, and the White House ruled it out.
Trump fired Bannon, or his chief-of-staff General Kelly did, or all the generals in the administration did, so Erik Prince isn’t going to get rich now, but we can repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq:
Foreign policy analysts said Trump’s decision on Afghanistan is tricky because his strategy does not represent a radical departure from the past.
“To be honest, it’s probably pretty close to what a Hillary Clinton would do,” said Derek Chollet, an assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration who now serves as a defense analyst at the German Marshall Fund.
Trump would disagree:
As president, Trump has used bellicose rhetoric to describe his military objectives, even as he has resisted being specific about his plans and objectives. He repeated that pattern in laying out his vision for U.S. engagement in Afghanistan.
“Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables will guide our actions from now on,” he said. “I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”
He also said no one would ever know the number of troops we have on the ground in Afghanistan from now on – not even the American people. He said he will not discuss troop levels, not now, not ever. That will keep the bad guys guessing. It didn’t seem to occur to him that Congress and the American people might like to know the number of troops we have on the ground in Afghanistan at any given time. Congress funds those troops. The American public provides those troops. Perhaps that will be worked out later.
Keven Drum offers a shorter version of all this:
Trump started out by complaining a bit, saying that he had been dealt “a bad and very complex hand,” but one he’d fix because “I’m a problem solver.” The solution, however, was pretty vague.
It was this vague:
We will shift from a time-based strategy to one based on conditions. In other words, we may just stay in Afghanistan forever.
We will no longer talk about numbers of troops. This is most likely because the increase in troops he approved was so minuscule as to be pointless.
Trump will bring to bear all elements of American power: diplomatic, economic, military. We’ve been doing this for the past decade, but whatever.
There will be no more coddling of Pakistan. How? By threatening to cut off money, it sounds like.
There will be no more micromanagement from Washington. The subtext here is that if we don’t make progress, we should blame Mattis, not Trump.
The rules of engagement will be loosened, though it’s unclear how.
There will be no more nation building. We’re killing bad guys, and that’s all.
But we’ll keep giving lots of money to Afghanistan for, um, nation building.
And there was this:
“Victory will have a clear definition,” Trump said, though he didn’t really say what that is. However, it appears to mean that ISIS and al-Qaeda are wiped out, the Taliban is transformed into a bunch of moderates, and there is no possibility of new terrorist groups emerging. That sounds good, but it’s just hot air. It will never happen.
Drum is not impressed:
There were no details, just a lot of generalized tough talk. Trump basically promised to accept nothing less than total victory, but there seems to be very little in his plan that’s different from what we’re doing already. The only potentially new item was his promise to force Pakistan to stop giving a safe haven to terrorists. We’ll see what that means in practice.
He did, however, take credit for our recent success in Mosul, which certainly takes some chutzpah. The Mosul offensive was entirely an Obama operation, and one that Trump had nothing but contempt for in the past. But it worked, so now it’s a Trump.
Drum also imagines the same conversation happening in March and in April and in May and in June and in July:
GENERALS: Not much more we can do. Maybe a few additional troops. Push harder on Pakistan. Stop worrying so much about civilian casualties.
TRUMP: Try again.
And now it’s August:
TRUMP: Today I am announcing a bold, new plan for total victory in Afghanistan. We will stop talking about troop levels. We will stop coddling Pakistan. We will unleash our military. And we will win.
No, we won’t:
There really isn’t a whole lot we can do in Afghanistan. The Pentagon knows this. After all, a few years ago they had over 100,000 troops there and it barely budged the needle. They’ve been pushing on Pakistan the whole time, but if they push too hard we’ll lose our drone bases there and be in even worse shape. And looser rules of engagement just enrage the Afghan populace and provide the Taliban with recruiting material. It’s a no-win situation. All we can do is keep on training the Afghan army and cross our fingers. Maybe eventually the government will have enough support and the army will have enough discipline to maintain order without us.
Or we can pull out. If we do that, the Taliban will take over in short order and that’s politically unacceptable. No American president wants to be the guy who “lost Afghanistan.”
So we just stay there forever, fighting a low-level war meant to contain the Taliban – barely – and not get too many US soldiers killed. That’s what Bush did. It’s what Obama did. And it’s what Trump is doing.
That’s also what Hillary would do, and Slate’s Fred Kaplan adds this:
Strategy is the application of force to achieve political aims. The first three tenets of Trump’s definition (“attacking…obliterating…crushing”) amount to pounding an area with firepower. The next two (halting the Taliban and stopping terrorist attacks) are political aims. But nowhere in the speech did Trump lay out how the pounding might lead to the winning of the war and the settling of the peace.
We have already been doing a lot of pounding in Afghanistan these last 16 years. Trump blamed the failures up until now on excessive micromanagement in Washington – too many rules about when, where, and how force can be used. He said he would lift those restrictions, let the commanders and the fighters in the field do what they think necessary. With this new freedom, victory will flow as freely as the lava from a freshly blown volcano.
Kaplan has a problem with that:
First, Trump didn’t say how many more U.S. troops he would be sending (on the rationale that he won’t let the enemy know what’s coming), but officials have been talking about another 3,000 to 5,000 on top of the 8,000 who are stationed there now. At the peak of the fight in 2011, there were 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. A few thousand more soldiers and Marines in full fury can’t wreak more damage than a restrained force 10 times larger (and, at times, that larger force fought with little restraint). So, on one level, his “plan” is impractical.
Second, the looser the rules of engagement, the more we’ll wind up killing Afghan civilians. (Rules of engagement are put in place precisely to limit civilian casualties.) This isn’t just a moral issue; it goes to the heart of strategy. The Taliban, ISIS, and the other militias are waging an insurgents’ war. You don’t need to be an adherent of classical counterinsurgency theory to realize that insurgency wars are, in part, wars for the loyalty and fear of the people. You don’t win the people’s hearts and minds by killing a lot of them, however accidentally. If you kill insurgents in a way that also kills innocent bystanders, you create more insurgents, as the friends and relatives of the bystanders you killed join the insurgency or at least turn a blind eye to their organizing.
And Trump’s talk of diplomacy is nonsense too:
Early on in the speech, Trump said his strategy would rely on the “integration of all instruments of American power – diplomatic, economic, and military – toward a successful outcome.” But he said little about those first two instruments – diplomacy and economics – and nothing about how they’d be integrated with the military campaign. Nor did he define “successful outcome,” except in terms of the enemy’s total defeat. But this isn’t likely to happen, or, if it does, it won’t happen strictly as the result of firepower.
He came close to admitting this. “Someday,” he said early on in the speech, “after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement,” which might include the Taliban, “but no one knows if or when that will happen.” End of paragraph.
Here’s a crucial point. Everyone knows – and has known from the beginning of this war – that it will end with a political settlement, which will include some faction of the Taliban, who are, after all, Afghans. All along, American commanders have put off this task until the Afghan army, backed by U.S. forces, is able to win more battles and win back more territory, so they can come to the bargaining table with more leverage. This has never happened: even when we and the Afghan army have won battles, it hasn’t given us more leverage. This is a recipe not for swift victory, but for never-ending war.
And then there’s the weakness and corruption of the Afghan government:
Local and regional warlords still rule much of the country’s territory; and to the extent the national authorities in Kabul get their way, it is often through bribes and kickbacks. All along, U.S. presidents and military commanders have said the Taliban and others will never be defeated as long as this remains the case. In a Senate hearing several years ago, Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said we could throw a million more troops into the battle and it wouldn’t make much difference as long as corruption reigned in Kabul.
Trump made a big point in his speech in disavowing the idea of nation-building. “We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their complex society,” he said. This is a good point, but it’s also problematic. As long as the Afghan leaders govern their complex society in a corrupt way, they will not win over the people and they will not defeat the Taliban. And yet this is the hardest part about Afghanistan, something that Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, knows well. When Gen. David Petraeus was commander in Afghanistan, he hired McMaster to run an anti-corruption program. It didn’t work. Now Trump is claiming a new way forward, a way toward a quick complete victory, without even acknowledging the problem.
All in all, this was a misguided effort:
It is doubtful that this speech will have much impact on its main intended audience – the American people, who must support continued funding of this war, with no limits on duration, if it is to succeed on any level.
And then add this:
There is another reason Trump is likely to gain little political traction from Monday night. The beginning of his speech was so full of guile. He called for peace and love at home. “Love for America,” he said, “requires love for all of its people… There is no room for prejudice, no room for bigotry, no tolerance for hate.” The brave servicemen and women serving abroad “deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home,” and so, he said, “let us find the courage to heal our wounds within.”
Trump is not the source of these wounds, but he has clearly and deliberately been the chief agitator of the tensions he’s talking about, perhaps most brazenly in just the past few days, in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville. No president can effectively persuade a country to step up a war abroad while he is so fiercely waging a war within.
And how can he effectively persuade his own base to reverse their thinking, which he encouraged, and now step up a war abroad, when his new strategy is exactly what President Hillary Clinton would have done, and what Bush did, and what Obama did? We signed that Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953, to end the fighting in Korea. Everyone stay in place and do nothing more than stay in place. Sixty-four years later we still have thirty thousand troops in South Korea, and things are tense at the moment, but no one is shooting anyone. Afghanistan could be the new Korea – but Donald Trump isn’t Dwight Eisenhower.
Donald Trump is a problem-solver. That’s what he says. Where’s the evidence for that?