Is the war in Afghanistan winnable? I fear not, under any commander in chief. I suspect withdrawal in the very near future would be the best course among a set of bad options.
If the U.S. is going to surge more troops into its longest war, however, doing so under Donald Trump is folly. And the brave men and women who volunteered for the U.S. military deserve better. It is hard to imagine a commander in chief less suited to succeed. That is partly due to his dearth of experience; partly due to the chaotic atmosphere he brings to the executive branch; partly due to the extreme divisions in our polity that he stokes and exacerbates; and partly due to his belief that it is okay to issue changes in military policy via Twitter before telling the Pentagon.
But the biggest reason Trump is unfit to command U.S. forces in Afghanistan is his repeated, public insistence that the war there is an idiotic waste, that we should withdraw, that the billions spent there would be better spent rebuilding our country, and that additional lives lost are lives wasted.
The troops who will keep risking their lives in Afghanistan know their commander in chief’s history. Six years ago, Trump started tweeting about America’s longest war:
Ron Paul is right that we are wasting trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 13, 2011
Four days later he repeated himself:
Ron Paul is right when he says we are wasting lives and money in Iraq and Afghanistan.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2011
That autumn he called for a change in America’s spending priorities:
When will we stop wasting our money on rebuilding Afghanistan? We must rebuild our country first.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2011
And he reiterated his position in the spring of 2012:
It is time to get out of Afghanistan. We are building roads and schools for people that hate us. It is not in our national interests.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 27, 2012
He argued that the war was disadvantaging America relative to a geopolitical rival:
China is getting minerals from Afghanistan http://t.co/uNxQYQWi We are getting our troops killed by the Afghani govt't. Time to get out.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 29, 2012
He called the war effort a total disaster:
Afghanistan is a total disaster. We don't know what we are doing. They are, in addition to everything else, robbing us blind.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 12, 2012
He called the war a "complete waste":
Why are we continuing to train these Afghanis who then shoot our soldiers in the back? Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 21, 2012
He declared that the cost in American lives was too great:
84% of US troops wounded & 70% of our brave men & women killed in Afghanistan have all come under Obama. Time to get out of there.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 11, 2012
He noted another batch of casualties:
We should remember that during this entire Petraeus episode,over 50 of our nation's bravest have died in Afghanistan...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 20, 2012
At the end of 2012 he issued another call for withdrawal:
Karzai of Afghanistan is not sticking with our signed agreement. They are dropping us like dopes. Get out now and re-build U.S.!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 6, 2012
At the beginning of 2013 he kept up the pressure:
So Obama and Congress can waste billions in Iraq & Afghanistan building roads & schools but can’t get money to the NJ & NY Sandy victims?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2013
We're wasting American lives and billions of dollars, he complained:
Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2013
Use the money on domestic infrastructure instead, he urged:
I agree with Pres. Obama on Afghanistan. We should have a speedy withdrawal. Why should we keep wasting our money -- rebuild the U.S.!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2013
He characterized American lives lost in the conflict as "wasted":
We should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives. If we have to go back in, we go in hard & quick. Rebuild the US first.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 1, 2013
He asserted that some of the money the U.S. sends there winds up in the hands of our enemies:
Our gov't is so pathetic that some of the billions being wasted in Afghanistan are ending up with terrorists http://t.co/bso3k1pR7l— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 17, 2013
Those who wanted the U.S. to stay there through 2024 are very stupid, he said:
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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 21, 2013
That November he repeated several of his arguments for withdrawal:
We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let's get out!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 21, 2013
He touted withdrawal again in the fall of 2014:
Five U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan by so-called friendly fire. What are we doing?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 10, 2014
That December he complained that Obama was keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan for another year:
Now Obama is keeping our soldiers in Afghanistan for at least another year. He is losing two wars simultaneously.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 1, 2014
In December 2015 he restated his position:
A suicide bomber has just killed U.S. troops in Afghanistan. When will our leaders get tough and smart. We are being led to slaughter!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 21, 2015
No one with a record of public statements like that is the ideal commander in chief to double down on the war in question, especially when he just campaigned and won office by promising withdrawal from abroad. Imagine that winning the Afghan war would require tens of thousands of additional troops, tens of billions of additional dollars, and five additional years. Could the guy elected after those tweets rally a nation to meet that burden? If the going gets tough, will he really stick with the position that the generals advising him pressured him to take rather than reverting to what he said for years?
Trump attempted to address his change of opinion in his address to the nation on Monday:
But Americans have come to know the different modes of Trump. On subjects that he actually cares about, the ones he returns to again and again, he riffs freely and exudes passionate intensity. No one doubts that Trump will keep reminding us of his election victory; his contempt for undocumented immigrants; and his hatred of the media.
On Monday, America got the other Trump, who mechanically reads speeches written in a voice not his own, showing neither passion nor conviction. He did note the contradiction between his long record of statements calling for withdrawal from Afghanistan and the policy of escalation that he grudgingly intends to pursue as president.
He did give plausible reasons for changing his mind.
But no American can be confident that Trump will provide steady leadership on matters of war. His initial instinct was withdrawal. And his behavior to date suggests that he usually reverts to instinct; that many now advising him will soon resign or be fired; that his attention will wander; that he may change course on an impulse at any moment, if only to show that he’s in charge, perhaps even tweeting that impulse before telling the Pentagon; and that even if he stays the course, he is likely to do more to rally Americans against Mika Brzezinski or The New York Times than the Taliban.
“This has been many months in the making,” Kellyanne Conway told The Washington Post. “The hallmark of leadership is a deliberative process, not an impulsive reaction, and that is precisely the protocol he followed here.” But winning a war requires a White House to sustain a deliberative process, and avoid impulsive mistakes, for many months or even years on end. When has Trump ever done that?
If Americans thought they were electing a president who would extend rather than end the Afghan war, it isn’t at all clear that they would’ve voted for Trump in the same numbers—not only because they are war weary, but because they know on some level that Trump is not the commander in chief you want when the nation is at war. All things considered, he is unusually unsuited to preside over a successful escalation. And if Trump fails for that reason, the loss of American soldiers will be on the hands of every member of Congress who quietly believes that he is unfit to be commander in chief—that his unfitness is likely to get more soldiers killed—but who says nothing and does nothing save hoping he resigns.