Elephants in the Room

Trump Is Right About Afghanistan

Those of us who have criticized the president when he has made mistakes should give him credit when he makes the right call.

US President Donald Trump disembarks from Air Force One upon arrival at Hagerstown Regional Airport in Hagerstown, Maryland, August 18, 2017, as he travels for meetings at Camp David before returning to Bedminster, New Jersey to continue his vacation.
US President Donald Trump is assembling his national security team at the Camp David presidential retreat Friday to forge a way ahead in Afghanistan, almost 16 years after the war began. Trump must decide if he wants to continue on the current course, which relies on a relatively small US-led NATO force to help Afghan partners push back the Taliban, or if he wants to try a new tack such as adding more forces -- or even withdrawing altogether.
 / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump disembarks from Air Force One upon arrival at Hagerstown Regional Airport in Hagerstown, Maryland, August 18, 2017, as he travels for meetings at Camp David before returning to Bedminster, New Jersey to continue his vacation. US President Donald Trump is assembling his national security team at the Camp David presidential retreat Friday to forge a way ahead in Afghanistan, almost 16 years after the war began. Trump must decide if he wants to continue on the current course, which relies on a relatively small US-led NATO force to help Afghan partners push back the Taliban, or if he wants to try a new tack such as adding more forces -- or even withdrawing altogether. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The best moment in President Donald Trump’s Afghanistan speech on Monday was also the most candid:

My original instinct was to pull out. And historically, I like following my instincts.

But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office, in other words, when you’re president of the United States. So I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable 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.

In other words, Trump acknowledged that he had come in with a policy view that was understandable, but not well grounded in a realistic appraisal of U.S. interests and the stakes involved. He started out with a view that is popular with those who have no accountability for their foreign policy advice, who can blithely advocate policies that have been proven disastrous, such as the call to walk away from a fight and cede safe havens to terrorist networks that are determined to attack the United States. But he did not stick with those views, despite pressure from at least some political advisors to do so.

Instead, he evolved, because he studied the issue and he started to look at the matter through the lens of someone who would be held accountable for results. It turns out, as my frequent co-author Hal Brands has argued in a thoughtful essay on the difference between academics and policymakers, that outsiders are drawn to the provocative (and sometimes simplistic) policy position because they are never held accountable for their bone-headed proposals. Policymakers are, however, and that is why all successful presidents evolve away from the policy through sound bite that worked when they were outsiders, but not in the real world of governing.

This is the kind of growth that happens to every occupant of the Oval Office, and the kind of growth some of Trump’s harshest critics have claimed that he cannot undergo.

Of course, one courageous policy decision and one speech do not a full evolution make. In the weeks, months, and years to come, the administration will have to provide muscle and vital organs and flesh to the skeletal structure of the strategy outlined by the president. In so doing, it will have to reconcile some of the tensions (bordering on contradictions) in the speech. Here are two that leapt out at me:

  • If building a strong Afghan government partner is essential and if the strategy involves deploying “all elements of national power,” doesn’t that mean doing the “nation-building” that the president explicitly rejected? “All elements of national power” is military speak for the partner capacity building efforts of the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the other nonmilitary departments and agencies. How will we undertake an all elements of national power strategy without beefing up all of the nonmilitary elements of national power?
  • How will we get Pakistan to behave more responsibly in Afghanistan while at the same time expanding the role of India in the regional strategy? Pakistan’s deleterious action is tightly correlated with India’s role in Afghanistan — the more of the latter, the more of the former.

But the president has given his team the wiggle room they will need to work out these internal tensions. He has promised not to set arbitrary timelines that are driven by the American political calendar. He has promised to give his commanders enough tactical flexibility to adjust to local conditions. He has insisted that the strategy will evolve with conditions on the ground. Without using the words, he has indicated that he will work toward “Afghan good enough” outcomes that are less grandiose but more achievable. Each of these is a midcourse correction to a mistake made by his predecessor.

Now it is time to correct one further mistake his predecessor made: Trump should make it clear to the American people that he, as commander-in-chief, owns the war and is committed to seeing his strategy through. President Barack Obama rarely talked about Afghanistan to the American people and when he did, it was in a way that convinced many, including his own advisors, that he was not committed to the war. Trump made a start with his speech last night, but he will need to remind the American people of this from time to time in the months and years to come.

The president has already been attacked by neo-isolationist pundits who wanted him to walk away, but I also expect those attacks will not matter much. The truth is that Afghanistan is not a major political drain on the administration one way or the other. Obama had a remarkably free hand to construct Afghanistan policy as he wished, and he paid essentially no political price for the choices he made, including the choice to evolve himself late in his administration when he reversed course and authorized U.S. combat troops to remain in Afghanistan past the end of his administration. In so doing, Obama forfeited the short-term media cycle “win” of spiking the ball (which likely would have bought him some favorable headlines as happened when he walked away from Iraq in 2011, even though it would be spiking the ball on the 10-yard line).

Obama eventually made the right decision to stay in Afghanistan, and Trump has made the right decision to extend that stay.

Those of us who have criticized the president when he has made mistakes should give him credit when he makes the right call. He made the right call last night, and I am hoping it will lead to more positive steps going forward.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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