Afghanistan Is Now Trump’s War
But does the president know what he wants to do with it?
President Donald Trump has just made one of the most consequential decisions of his young and turbulent presidency — whether to send thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan and to what end. If press reporting is correct, increasing the American commitment in Afghanistan was the Trump national security team’s preferred outcome — and despite the president’s misgivings, the final one. The goal: to help the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces stabilize the security situation, gain the momentum against the Taliban, and prevent the Islamic State from gaining a foothold in Afghanistan.
The Trump administration will assert that this is a new strategy — a clear break from President Barack Obama’s approach — but in reality it is just a moderate adjustment of a core strategy that has been in place for years, with mixed results.
Meanwhile, despite the importance of this decision, Afghanistan remains the Rodney Dangerfield of national security issues. It does not preoccupy our national conversation. It used to be the “good war.” Now it is the forgotten war. Afghanistan didn’t feature at all in the 2016 presidential campaign — not a single debate question nor meaningful stump speech mention by either candidate. And yet more than 2,400 U.S. troops have paid the ultimate price in Afghanistan. More than 20,000 American troops have been wounded in action. The United States has provided over $100 billion in foreign and security assistance to Afghanistan since 2002 (not counting the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on actually conducting the war). Unfortunately, despite this commitment of blood and treasure, most Americans have checked out on this war — an almost psychological break from one of the most traumatic events in our history.
Like many Americans, I struggle with what the United States should do in Afghanistan — the answers are not obvious and the options are never satisfying. In my previous role, I strongly supported President Obama’s decision to retain higher U.S. troop levels at the end of the administration because I believed the potential risks of drawing down were higher than the known risks of staying. I also felt that it was important to preserve stability in Afghanistan during a change of U.S. administrations. Today I believe that, on balance, sustaining America’s commitment in Afghanistan is in some ways more important now than ever in a world that is questioning our reliability. And with all the festering problems in the world, we can’t afford to risk further instability in Afghanistan at this moment. But I also don’t think the United States should continue to be on autopilot — and that the end of the conflict will come about primarily through political not military means — a woefully neglected aspect of this administration’s strategy so far. The president may not want to issue timelines for withdrawal, but he needs to articulate clearly the reasons that warrant remaining, as well as the conditions that he thinks manifest success.
If the president is willing to put U.S. troops and civilian personnel at risk, he owes them clarity on what their mission is, the resources (military and non-military) to carry it out, and most importantly, accountability to clear objectives. The Trump team reportedly just finished its strategy review. And for the first time, the core of the U.S. national security team is made up almost entirely of Afghanistan war veterans: National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford, and Chief of Staff John Kelly. This team certainly has the experience to present the president with a thoughtful, although not necessarily dispassionate, picture of what is and is not working in Afghanistan. And Mattis has insisted that the review was “sufficiently rigorous.”
Assuming that review was indeed comprehensive, the reported outcome presents some questions that the president and his team will need to answer for the American public:
- What are we trying to achieve in Afghanistan and why is it important that we stay longer — after 16 years already?
- We entered Afghanistan to defeat al Qaeda, which we largely have. Who is the enemy now and what kind of threat do they pose to the United States?
- You don’t want to set timelines for leaving, but do you expect us to be there forever? If so, to what end? If not, what would the conditions for the end of the U.S. military commitment look like?
- Will a modest troop increase make a meaningful and measurable difference or are we just delaying failure? How will we know we are “winning”?
- What does the end of conflict look like, and do we have a political strategy to bring it about? Who is in charge of it?
- How do our allies fit in and how do we best ensure their buy-in and support?
- How do we better address the enduring problem of safe-havens in Pakistan without just creating larger problems?
- Will you get China to pick up more responsibility in Afghanistan or will they continue to draft off our security investments?
- Are we resourcing (and staffing) our strategy appropriately and if not, what adjustments need to be made? How long is that resourcing sustainable?
- What are the global opportunity costs to staying the course? And why should we be prepared to pay them?
Unfortunately, I don’t have confidence this president cares to think deeply on these questions at all. After trying to dump responsibility for the war on the generals and failing to even travel to Afghanistan ahead of this decision, Trump’s actions speak volumes about his level of interest. And no good policy process can make up for a disinterested president.
Despite his disinterest, however, this will now be President Trump’s war — not Barack Obama’s, not George W. Bush’s, not H.R. McMaster’s. He will own the successes and the failures of his decisions. I suspect that scares President Trump more than anything so far in his presidency. In the wake of the tragic events in Charlottesville and the president’s abdication of moral authority, this decision also takes on new meaning. Does this president have the credibility to unify the country around a decision to send more troops into harm’s way? We’ll soon find out.
Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images