Elephants in the Room
Trump’s Presidential Afghanistan Speech
Details may be slim, but the president nailed the "why" of America's longest war — and boldly went against his political base.
Last night was one of Donald Trump’s finest moments as president. The Trump who showed up was the Trump who spoke about the heritage of freedom in Warsaw, not the Trump from the past week’s worth of press conferences. He stuck to his script, powerfully argued for the enduring importance of the war in Afghanistan, and paid fitting homage to 16 years of sacrifice by the American military. He provided scant details, but at least provided hope that he is giving free rein for his subordinates to fill them in.
What did Trump get right? The first right decision was not actually in the speech. It was widely reported beforehand that Trump has decided on a modest supplement of 4,000 U.S. troops to reinforce the 8,500 still serving in Afghanistan. This is a step in the right direction but, as I argued a few months ago, probably insufficient to break the Taliban’s momentum and put the Afghans on the road to lasting stability. Trump was right not to get into troops numbers in his speech. Too often, U.S. strategy has been reduced to a numbers game.
Trump paid fitting homage to the American soldier and properly framed the importance of the war in Afghanistan. “Our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives.” Economists will wail about the folly of chasing “sunk costs,” but it was Abraham Lincoln who insisted that the nation rededicate itself to its purpose so that “these dead shall not have died in vain.” The meaning of soldiers’ deaths depends on whether we continue their fight. As Trump said, “we must secure the cause for which they gave their lives.”
And that led to one of the best parts of Trump’s speech. “The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory,” he said, using the word “victory” four times in the speech, “Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition.” Trump said “win” and “victory” more times in 15 minutes than President Barack Obama did in eight years.
Trump’s nationalism, which I otherwise find objectionable, has led him to a keener and better appreciation of how to speak about war than Obama. I expect other foreign policy professionals will criticize him for saying “victory,” because in 21st-century wars we will never get a formal surrender ceremony by the enemy. That is true, but irrelevant to how the American people think and talk about the moral imperatives of war and its aims.
Trump deserves credit for making an unpopular and hard decision. After campaigning against military interventions and democracy promotion and in favor of an “America First” foreign policy, Trump could have easily found an excuse to withdrawal from Afghanistan entirely. He even confessed in his speech, “My original instinct was to pull out.”
Trump could have declared defeat, blaming Obama and George W. Bush for mishandling the war and leaving him an impossible situation. Trump might have claimed that the failure of the war in Afghanistan validated his critique of the “globalist” foreign policy establishment and proved the wisdom of his call for stronger borders and a more realistic, tough-minded outlook on the world.
Instead, Trump echoed Obama and Bush in arguing for the importance of the war, and even portrayed himself as learning from their mistakes. He correctly noted that, “the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable.” He said, again correctly, “A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11. And as we know, in 2011, America hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq.” Trump framed the war in Afghanistan exactly right.
Finally, on the positive side, Trump rejected all talk of withdrawal or timetables. “A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions,” he said, “Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on.” When Obama announced his surge and withdrawal simultaneously in 2009, he was met with an avalanche of criticism for undermining his own strategy and telling the enemy how long they had to wait us out. Trump’s speech changes the dynamics of the war: it will help reassure our Afghan allies and undermine the Taliban’s resolve. But the president should have gone further and explicitly endorsed the 2012 U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement and 2013 Bilateral Security Agreement.
Nonetheless, there are real problems with Trump’s Afghanistan strategy. For example, while he tried to place the war in Afghanistan in a regional context, he was entirely unclear about what that meant for U.S. strategy. He rightly pointed out that Pakistan is a problem and India is an opportunity and made a vague commitment to get them to do better — but offered no specifics.
A bigger problem is that it is unclear if Trump understands the political and diplomatic aspects of the war. He claimed that another new element of his approach was the “integration of all instruments of American power, diplomatic, economic, and military, toward a successful outcome.” (There is nothing new about this, rhetorically at least, as it’s been a staple of campaign plans for a decade.)
It is unclear what Trump really means, or if he understands what “all instruments of national power” entails. He repeatedly railed against democracy promotion and nation building. He said, “We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.” Again, “We will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image.… We are not asking others to change their way of life.”
So, in Trump’s strategy, will the United States use all instruments of national power, or will it avoid civilian tools of power, like economic assistance and political support, to avoid the dreaded “nation building”? In what sense is the United States using all instruments of national power if it is not using economic assistance to help the Afghan economy, or technical help to support the Afghan electoral process, or providing police training or support to political parties or the rule of law — or any of the other activities that get unfairly tarnished with the boogeyman of “nation building”?
Too often, critics who dislike long and messy interventions fabricate a myth that the United States has been trying to coercively Americanize other nations against their will, and that we will pay a sore price for our imperial hubris. To hear them tell it, we would never know that the Afghans wrote their own constitution in 2003, ratified it in 2004, and held national elections five times since then. You would not know that in round after round of polling, Afghans strongly support the ideas of democracy — they just want it to work better.
Trump is right that we should use all instruments of national power — including the instruments of foreign aid, technical assistance, diplomacy, development, and democracy promotion.
The other problem in Trump’s strategy is his promise to loosen the military’s rules of engagement. “We will also expand authority for American armed forces to target the terrorists and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan,” he promised. Here Trump is showing his true Jacksonian colors: war is about killing people and blowing things up, in his view. Unfortunately, Trump may be fighting the wrong kind of war.
In 2009 and 2010, the United States started to tighten the rules of engagement to bring them closer in line with best counterinsurgency practices. Unfortunately, Trump seems more interested in a body count than in strengthening the writ and authority of the Afghan government. This will end up being counterproductive. The U.S. military doesn’t have difficulty killing people. It has difficulty helping a foreign host-nation engage in competitive state-building. More bombs and more dead bodies are not the right answer.
Despite these flaws, there was on balance more good than bad in Trump’s speech, partly because what he got right were the large, big picture questions — the why of the Afghan war. The how was vague, and some details he did provide were troubling. But the how is also where Trump’s subordinates — Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster — will step in. Trump has given Afghanistan a new lease on life; he has given the U.S. and Afghan militaries another chance at finding the “honorable and enduring outcome” he spoke of.
It is also notable that Trump’s Afghanistan policy is one of the few times — and one of the most significant times — that the president has clearly gone against his base, and that says something important. Judging from what I saw on Twitter last night, his base is unhappy with his speech. Trump made this decision in spite of, not because, of the political constituency most important to him, which is all the more reason to celebrate it. It is hard for me to admit that Trump got something right. I heartily identify with the NeverTrump crowd, signed one of the anti-Trump open letters last year, and have had almost nothing good to say about his performance in office to date. But he deserves credit when it is due.
Photo credit: JOE RAEDLE/Getty Images