Trump is the American Everyman on Afghanistan. He is frustrated that we’re still there after 16 years—who wouldn’t be?—and questions why we’ve spent so much blood and treasure in a land-locked country in Central Asia when roads and bridges go unrepaired at home.
But Trump the president is not Trump the private citizen and, like every policy maker who has looked at Afghanistan with actual responsibility for U.S. interests there, Trump was confronted with a series of bad options and chose the one that offered the least resistance: following the advice of his uniformed military officers and following the same basic strategy as the Obama administration while committing more troops to go on the offensive, again, against the Taliban.
Some of the press reporting today hints the uniformed military officer corps more or less manipulated Trump into committing more resources to Afghanistan in the same way they once manipulated Obama into doing the same.
I disagree with this line of argument.
First, Obama was no one’s puppet. One of our most thoughtful—some would say overly so—presidents, he committed more troops to Afghanistan only after a full year in office that included a rigorous soup-to-nuts review of policy and operations. (I myself played a very small role in this review process while assisting General Stanley McChrystal with his own assessment of the war in the summer of 2009.) To say Obama was dragged into a conflict by hawkish military leaders is unfair—especially since Obama himself had run for office promising to double down in Afghanistan at the same time in which we divested from the war in Iraq.
Trump is also his own man, for better or for worse. After these past two weeks, for example, in which Trump has repeatedly bucked the sage advice of his staff on whether or not to unequivocally condemn white supremacists, are we really expected to believe he lacked the courage to do so on a war he hates?
His military leadership was likewise never going to allow him to be seen as being under their thumb.
There were two reasons, for example, Secretary of Defense James Mattis was not about to deploy more troops to Afghanistan—as he was permitted to do—prior to the conclusion of a policy review. First, Secretary Mattis wanted the president to take ownership of this conflict. As the commander in chief, Trump is responsible for everything our government does or fails to do in our conflicts abroad, and he needs to realize that for himself, even if everyone around him already does. Second, Secretary Mattis himself isn’t the kind of person to commit more means to a strategy before everyone is clear about the ends and ways involved.
But that’s what so confuses me about last night’s speech. Going back through the text this morning, I am still unclear what the precise ends of the U.S. strategy are. I applaud the absence of any timeline on the U.S. presence in Afghanistan—Obama’s inclusion of a timeline for withdrawal in December of 2009 was, I thought at the time, an unnecessary mistake that allowed regional actors to think they could wait the U.S.-led coalition out—but I don’t understand what our goal is and thus how we’re going to be able to know whether the new-ish strategy is working.
The ends Obama laid out in December of 2009 were similarly vague, but, because they were time-bound, we could at least honestly admit we had failed to achieve them by the time U.S. troops began to leave. Trump has set out not to win but not to lose. I’m not sure how that goal will ever lead to conflict termination.
Trump, at the very least, needs to understand when we’re winning and losing, because as good and experienced as his military leadership is, they are also deeply and emotionally invested in this conflict. Trump could do them, and the nation, a real service by continuing to ask the “dumb” questions about why we’re still in Afghanistan in such numbers, why the Greatest Military in History™ has not been able to achieve victory, and how long U.S. fathers and mothers should expect to send their sons and daughters there.
For the U.S. military, the war in Afghanistan has become an institution like the Marine Corps: We have strong emotional attachment to it even if it’s not always logically clear why it’s necessary. (We all love the Marine Corps, myself included, but why does the navy need to have its own army? And why does that army need to have its own air force?)
At some point—and I’m not sure it’s now, but it’s certainly in the next 16 years—a president might have to tell the military that enough is enough: We fought hard, but we have other, greater priorities elsewhere.
That’s going to be tough to do, especially when you’ve pledged, as Trump did last night, to achieve “an outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives.”
Sunk costs are sunk costs, but it’s hard to treat them that way—even for the most cold-blooded of strategists—when they represent lives lost, and when those lives are, for many of us, not faceless names but men and women we served with and knew intimately.
Yet Trump overpromised last night—in terms of what we can achieve in Afghanistan, and in terms of how Afghanistan’s neighbors will respond. One of the nation’s leading Afghanistan experts called the speech “an incoherent wish list unmoored in political reality or principle.”
Neither India nor Pakistan will further bend their nation’s policies toward that of the United States, and U.S. troops and their Afghan partners are unlikely to achieve anything approaching the decisive defeat of an indigenous enemy.
And so, like everything else in Trump’s presidency, he is bound to underdeliver.
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