Trump Backs a Surge Into Afghanistan He's Unfit to Lead

It’s not simply his reversal—it’s that his record suggests he lacks the consistency to stay the course he’s charted.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

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:

Four days later he repeated himself:

That autumn he called for a change in America’s spending priorities:

And he reiterated his position in the spring of 2012:

He argued that the war was disadvantaging America relative to a geopolitical rival:

He called the war effort a total disaster:

He called the war a "complete waste":

He declared that the cost in American lives was too great:

He noted another batch of casualties:

At the end of 2012 he issued another call for withdrawal:

At the beginning of 2013 he kept up the pressure:

We're wasting American lives and billions of dollars, he complained:

Use the money on domestic infrastructure instead, he urged:

He characterized American lives lost in the conflict as "wasted":

He asserted that some of the money the U.S. sends there winds up in the hands of our enemies:

Those who wanted the U.S. to stay there through 2024 are very stupid, he said:

That November he repeated several of his arguments for withdrawal:

He touted withdrawal again in the fall of 2014:

That December he complained that Obama was keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan for another year:

In December 2015 he restated his position:

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.