Give Trump Credit for His Afghanistan Plan

By avoiding timetables and holding Pakistan accountable, he seeks to reverse the mistakes of the past.

U.S. soldiers cover their faces from the dust blown around by the rotors of a helicopter.
U.S. soldiers cover their faces from the dust blown around by the rotors of a helicopter during a visit to an Afghan National police installation in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan, on December 16, 2014.  (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

Donald Trump campaigned on ending the war in Afghanistan, calling it “a complete waste” and advocating walking away from it. I’d been arraying the possibility around 60 percent that, as president, he’d write off Afghanistan entirely. So it’s very much to his credit that he let himself be persuaded to embrace a policy diametrically opposed to his campaign rhetoric.

And it’s important that he took responsibility for the strategy by explaining himself to the American people on Monday night. It was powerful that he explained his initial opposition, and took Americans on the journey of his changing views, saying he understood their frustration but had come to the conclusion that “the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable.” The speech showed that President Trump has accepted that, while there may be no good options for dealing with Afghanistan, there are better and worse options, and his instinct had been to select an option that would leave our country less safe.

In his address laying out his plan for the war in Afghanistan, President Trump did the right thing. He recognized the continuing threats to the United States emanating from Afghanistan, and he committed his administration to continue partnering with the government of Afghanistan until its police and military have the ability to handle the problem. The strategy he announced narrows the war effort somewhat to more of a counter-terrorism fight and away from the more expansive aims of counterinsurgency by committing to an outcome rather than a timeline, aspiring to a more integrated politico-economic-military approach, and outlining the regional political needs for the strategy’s success.

This is a big improvement over President George W. Bush’s ill-defined and under-resourced effort, and President Barack Obama’s strategically contradictory and under-resourced approach. President Trump outlined a plan that seeks to correct the mistakes of the Obama administration’s approach to the war, and shifting authority for operational decisions back to the Pentagon from the White House. It also cast aside the counter-productive Obama policy of threatening the government of Afghanistan with abandonment.

Critics of the president’s strategy argue that not identifying troop levels or timetables was a serious omission. But to have done so would have simply repeated President Obama’s mistakes. President Trump’s choice to define the mission and allow it to drive the resourcing of both troops and time is a better approach. Congressional oversight will ensure accountability for the troops and money; to be explicit about either would convey the limits of America’s interest in Afghanistan, rather than signal its commitment to it.

The most challenging piece of the Trump strategy—as with the Bush and Obama strategies —will be bringing Pakistan into alignment. Pakistan has long worked to undermine stability in Afghanistan, supporting terrorist fighters and financing and providing them sanctuary. That is where repudiating timelines for withdrawal may have an important effect: if Pakistan comes to believe it cannot wait America out, and America continues applying pressure like cancelling military aid, Islamabad may more fully cooperate.

But this also risks alienating Pakistan when America would very much like to convince it to make some serious changes, like limiting its nuclear weapons programs. Islamabad may also be incensed with Trump, since in his speech he coupled his criticism of Pakistan with deserved praise for the constructive role India has played in helping Afghanistan. Both the praise and the censure are deserved, though: India is playing a constructive role in Afghanistan, and Pakistan most manifestly is not. Previous administrations have offered numerous carrots that failed to influence Pakistan’s behavior, and a rebalancing is overdue.

It will be interesting to see whether Americans are willing to support so divisive a president on this. My guess is that public indifference to the war will give Trump greater latitude than a dramatic change in policy—like, say, a preventive war against North Korea. The majority of Americans want to end U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan. But that’s not the right metric, since most Americans have the luxury of not being directly affected by the war. Surveys of public attitudes make clear that Americans are typically inclined to give the president the benefit of the doubt on issues of warfare, provided that he makes a reasonable case that it needs doing, and outlines a strategy that brings the price into line with what is being achieved. President Trump met those standards last night.

President Trump deserves credit for reconsidering his opposition to persevering in Afghanistan. All the political incentives were aligned for him to write the war off: The public opposes it, he campaigned against it, and Lord knows he has enough problems. He was justified, too, in taking his time, asking first-order questions, and widening the aperture to include unconventional approaches. Afghanistan is a hard problem, and we’ve been at this for a long time. While it took him some time to develop and take ownership for a strategy, it took him less time than it took President Obama. And it’s a better strategy.