President Trump Shifts on Afghanistan
While running for president, Donald Trump made it clear that it was time to leave Afghanistan.
On Monday night, he shifted course. In his speech to the nation, he said, “Shortly after my inauguration, I directed Secretary of Defense Mattis and my national security team to undertake a comprehensive review of all strategic options in Afghanistan and South Asia.”
“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts, but all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office. So I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every angle. After many meetings, over many months, we held our final meeting last Friday at Camp David, with my Cabinet and Generals, to complete our strategy.”
Trump’s strategy includes holding Afghanistan accountable for maintaining “their share of the military, political, and economic burden” in exchange for continued U.S. support. The president also issued a sharp rejection 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 own complex society,” he said.
The only tangible part of the policy is sending about 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan – hardly enough to make a big difference. Trump also put pressure on Pakistan in his speech, calling out the country for serving as a “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror,” including the Taliban.
The response from Congressional Republicans, who have regularly castigated Trump recently, was positive.
Arizona senator John McCain, chairman of the armed services committee, commended the president’s strategy as “long overdue.” He had previously slammed the administration for delaying in setting out a strategy for Afghanistan.
“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.”
South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham applauded the president’s strategy. “President Trump has the smarts and the moral courage to listen to his generals and take their advice, rather than going the political way, and I’m so proud he did.”
So, why did Trump change his strategy?
By all measures, Afghanistan has become a failure. The Afghan government is unable to pay for basic services, curtail opium production and the drug trade, or utilize the country’s natural resources. American taxpayer money has been spent on soybeans that won’t grow, weapons that Afghan military forces lost, a $2.9 million farming-storage facility that was never used, and a $456,000 training center that “disintegrated” within four months.
Afghanistan has had the lead responsibility for its own security for more than a year now, and is struggling with a year around insurgency. Heavy losses in the poppy-growing province of Helmand have required rebuilding an Afghan army corps and replacing its commander and some other officers as a result, a U.S. general said, of ‘a combination of incompetence, corruption, and ineffectiveness.’”
From 2002 to 2016, Congress appropriated more than $113 billion to rebuild Afghanistan, paying for roads, clinics, schools, civil-servant salaries, and Afghan military and police forces. Adjusted for inflation, the amount the US spent to reconstruct Afghanistan now exceeds the total amount spent on the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Western Europe after WWII.
In light of all this, and sixteen years of war, it is completely understandable that Americans want to throw up their hands and withdraw all U.S. military forces. If 9/11 had never occurred, the United States never would have invaded Afghanistan. For most of their history, Americans have paid little or no attention to that country, and would be content to let them set their own course.
The problem is Americans know what happens if they do ignorer Afghanistan now. The Obama administration withdrew from Iraq and assured the public that the departure of coalition troops would not lead to an increased threat to Americans. Then ISIS gradually grew in the US military absence. Obama was so wedded to the idea that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was the right move and did not exacerbate threats to Americans that he insisted the Islamists taking over Fallujuah were merely the “JV team.”
If American forces leave Afghanistan, it is likely that the Taliban will take over eventually. When they do, it is likely that they will host other terrorists like al Qaeda or ISIS.
That left Trump with several bad options – remain in the quagmire or let Afghanistan remain a haven for terrorists.
Trump has chosen an option that he thinks has a low military profile, yet has some chance of working.
The first change is to put more pressure on Pakistan. Trump said, “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond. Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists.”
He added, “For its part, Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror. The threat is worse because Pakistan and India are two nuclear-armed states whose tense relations threaten to spiral into conflict.”
Trump hopes that pressure from India can help move Pakistan – a questionable assumption.
However, Islamabad may take this rhetoric seriously, since it receives about $1 billion a year from the US.
Trump also made it clear that he seeks to prevent a takeover by Taliban, leaving room for a negotiated settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. He reiterated his support for the Afghan government by saying, “America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress. However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check. The American people expect to see real reforms and real results.”
Probably the biggest difference isn’t the number of troops or the commitment to bring Pakistan into the mix. It appears that Trump has given the American Army the go ahead to prosecute the war in order to win.
Trump said, “I have already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our warfighters that prevented the Secretary of Defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy. Micromanagement from Washington, DC does not win battles. They are won in the field drawing upon the judgment and expertise of wartime commanders and front line soldiers acting in real time – with real authority – and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy.”
“That’s why we will also expand authority for American armed forces to target the terrorist and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan. These killers need to know they have nowhere to hide – that no place is beyond the reach of American arms…Our troops will fight to win. 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.”
During the campaign, Trump reiterated the fact that Obama wasn’t allowing the US military to prosecute the wars in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. When he became president, Trump gave the US permission to aggressively fight and defeat ISIS without sending significant numbers of troops to Syria. Trump supporters are claiming that this strategy has pushed ISIS back in Iraq and Syria.
It appears that Trump’s strategy is going to focus on giving his generals the go ahead to press the Taliban hoping to achieve some success to force Taliban to come to the negotiation table. Then, we can expect Trump to move to quickly pull out Afghanistan. As he noted in his speech, the days of nation building are over. “But we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our own image – those days are now over.”
So, what is the new strategy? It’s a more aggressive US military – with a few more soldiers added to the mix. It’s putting pressure on Pakistan to stop giving havens to terrorists. It’s forgoing nation building (and the additional financial costs). And, it’s telling Afghanistan that the final responsibility for peace and stability is in their own hands.
It is worth noting here that if 100 thousand American troops could not succeed in the past, why a 4 or 5 thousand additional troops to the existing 10 thousand can change the situation?
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