Analysis

Trump’s 2019 Vision: Let Others Fight Our Battles

The U.S. president says Afghanistan is Pakistan and Russia’s business and calls Syria nothing but “sand and death.”

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks alongside Defense Secretary James Mattis during a cabinet meeting at the White House on Dec. 6, 2017. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks alongside Defense Secretary James Mattis during a cabinet meeting at the White House on Dec. 6, 2017. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

In extraordinary and apparently impromptu remarks on Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump indicated that he believes it isn’t in America’s interest to be fighting in either Syria or Afghanistan, which he appears to view as local conflicts best left to regional powers.

In the case of Afghanistan, Trump all but dismissed the nearly two-decade war there as a matter for Afghan neighbors such as Russia and Pakistan to figure out, giving a historically garbled account of Moscow’s experience in Afghanistan and suggesting that the United States shouldn’t follow in the path of the former Soviet Union by draining its resources there. Referring to the 1979-89 Soviet occupation, Trump said: “Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan.”

He went on to say: “So you take a look at other countries—Pakistan is there. They should be fighting. But Russia should be fighting. The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is it was a tough fight.”

The remarks during a 95-minute cabinet meeting at the White House gave new insight into Trump’s vision of Afghanistan and his frustration with the stalemate in that war-torn country—as well as with the generals who have advised him to stay, including his just-departed defense secretary, James Mattis.

“What’s he done for me? How has he done in Afghanistan?” Trump said. “I’m not happy with what he done in Afghanistan, and I shouldn’t be happy.” The president added that he’d “essentially” fired Mattis, though the Marine general resigned in protest over Trump’s announced withdrawal from Syria.

In December 2017, Trump praised Mattis for making headway against Islamic State terrorists and described him as “our great military genius.” “Thanks to Mad Dog Mattis that we have great military leaders. ISIS is being dealt one brutal defeat after another,” he said at a rally in Florida.

But on Wednesday, the president suggested that he might have done better than Mattis and the U.S. generals who have fought in Afghanistan. “I think I would’ve been a good general, but who knows,” he said.

Trump’s comments also revealed that the president’s historical memory is rather limited and somewhat out of touch with reality. While it is true that the former Soviet Union was financially drained by its 10-year campaign in Afghanistan, and collapsed only two years later, there were many other long-term factors in the USSR’s demise. In addition, the Soviets didn’t invade Afghanistan because “terrorists were going into Russia,” as Trump said, but because they wanted to shore up their pro-communist puppet government there.

More importantly, the United States invaded Afghanistan after 9/11 because the then-Taliban-controlled government was harboring al Qaeda, which had attacked the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. The Taliban movement is now resurgent, and numerous intelligence and on-the-ground reports over the years have concluded that Pakistan is supporting the Taliban, not fighting them.

Trump’s comments left many Washington observers aghast. “It seems impossible, but it’s true: President Trump just endorsed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Who’s he working for?” tweeted David Frum, who worked for President George W. Bush during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 and was credited with Bush’s infamous “axis of evil” line.

Other Republicans, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina—who has called for a strong U.S. presence in both Syria and Afghanistan—are likely to be incensed by Trump’s remarks.

The president appeared to view the conflict in Syria in a similar way to Afghanistan, suggesting it was not worth any U.S. investment of blood or treasure. “Syria was lost long ago. It was lost long ago. We’re not talking about vast wealth. We’re talking about sand and death. I’m getting out, we’re getting out of Syria. Look, we don’t want Syria,” he said.

Trump said little about the Islamic State, the terrorist group that has threatened U.S. interests and which the president claimed—falsely—in late December was “defeated.” He said it was possible that “a very small percentage” of ISIS will “come to our country,” but that they would want to target Iran and Russia more. 

During the cabinet meeting, the president suggested that he wouldn’t pull 2,000 American troops out of Syria right away. “I never said we’re getting out tomorrow. Oh, we’re withdrawing,” he said, adding that it would happen “over a period of time” because he wanted to protect the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in the country.

Even so, Trump also criticized the Kurds, saying, “It’s very interesting. Turkey doesn’t like them. Other people do. I didn’t like the fact that they’re selling the small [amount of] oil that they have to Iran, and we asked them not to sell it to Iran. The Kurds, our partners, are selling oil to Iran. We’re not thrilled about that, OK? I’m not happy about it at all.”

“But we want to protect the Kurds, nevertheless, we want to protect the Kurds,” he continued. “But I don’t want to be in Syria forever. It’s sand. And it’s death.”

He also once again criticized European allies for not taking a bigger role in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He singled out Germany, saying it was “paying 1 percent” of its GDP on defense when it “should be paying 4 percent” and that he “didn’t care” if the Europeans opposed him. “I shouldn’t be popular in Europe. I want Europe to pay. I don’t care about Europe.”

The president suggested that the new acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, agreed with his worldview far more than Mattis did. “We have some great allies, but a lot of our allies were taking advantage of our taxpayers and our country,” Trump said. “We can’t let that happen, and Pat Shanahan agrees with that, and he’s agreed with that for a long time. And that was very important to me. I couldn’t get other people to understand it.”

It is no surprise that Trump—who seems intent on fulfilling his campaign pledges to withdraw U.S. troops from various foreign outposts despite often urgent contrary advice from his national security experts—is deeply frustrated with the lack of progress in Afghanistan. As Foreign Policy reported last fall, even the Pentagon’s top generals admit the war, America’s longest, is in a virtual stalemate between the U.S.-supported government in Kabul and the Taliban. The Taliban are “not losing right now, I think that is fair to say,” Gen. Joseph Dunford, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during the Halifax International Security Forum on Nov. 17.

But most foreign-policy experts say the Afghan government cannot by itself hold off the Taliban, and to leave Afghanistan to the radical Islamist group would be to invite another 9/11.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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