In December 2014, American newspapers were filled with headlines like these: “Afghanistan War officially ends;” “U.S. formally ends the war in Afghanistan;” “President Obama marks formal end of war in Afghanistan;” “U.S. ends its war in Afghanistan.”
This wasn’t quite a “Mission Accomplished” moment, but it’s difficult to read those pronouncements without marveling at how misleading they were (even when the word “formal” was inserted as a minor hedge). The same goes for the self-congratulatory statements that were pouring out of the White House at the time – like this one: “The longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.” Although Obama made it clear that U.S. troops would remain in the country to “train, advise and assist” Afghan forces, the words “responsible conclusion,” “end of the war,” etc. didn’t exactly prepare Americans for an indefinite military commitment.
But that’s exactly what we got. In July 2016, Obama announced that 8,400 troops would remain in the country through the end of his term – a number that has grown to more than 11,000. Now President Trump has authorized the deployment of 4,000 more.
A few months ago, Trump was content to ignore Afghanistan – he had done so since the beginning of his campaign, and no one seemed to care. From his major foreign policy speeches to his joint address to Congress in February to his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump took assiduous care to avoid the subject. But that finally changed two weeks ago when he delivered a speech outlining the new American strategy in the region – a strategy that probably surprised most of the people who have been trying to understand what position he would adopt on Afghanistan.
Instead of describing the war as a “complete waste,” a “proven failure” and a “terrible mistake” (the things he used to say on the rare occasions when Afghanistan came up), he argued that the U.S. must pursue an “honorable and enduring outcome.” Then he said the “consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable” and concluded that the “security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense.” While Trump claims that he “studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle” before making this decision, it’s more likely that the generals in his administration (Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, national security advisor H.R. McMaster and chief of staff John Kelly) convinced him to completely disown almost everything he’s ever said about Afghanistan.
While it’s disconcerting that our president can’t seem to think for himself when it comes to one of the most daunting foreign policy challenges his administration faces, Trump’s Afghanistan policy is a drastic improvement over the unthinking pessimism he expressed prior to the election. This isn’t to say pessimism is unwarranted, but Trump’s vague and bitter commentary on the war wasn’t useful. Nor was his stubborn unwillingness to address the issue in the first place. However, the speech Trump delivered at Fort Myer on Aug. 21 proved that he’s capable of being serious about Afghanistan (at least for a few minutes), and it represented a substantial shift away from several failed Obama-era policies.
First, Trump was much more candid than Obama about the importance of challenging Pakistan on its support for terror: “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting.” As he noted, there’s a higher concentration of jihadist organizations in Pakistan than anywhere else on the planet, and they often receive direct state support. For example, the Haqqani network has strong ties to members of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (the country’s military intelligence agency), and even stronger ties to the Taliban. Pakistan is particularly enthusiastic about groups that murder Indians, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attack that left 164 people dead and more than 300 wounded.
Second, Trump wants to reinforce the U.S. relationship with India – a country that has made significant contributions to reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, wields immense regional influence, has an annual GDP growth rate of 7 percent, and has many of the same enemies as us. These are just a few of the reasons why Trump is right to emphasize the United States’ “strategic partnership with India – the world’s largest democracy and a key security and economic partner.” And although he isn’t the first president to make such overtures to India, his comments about Pakistan should demonstrate that the U.S. is serious about shifting its priorities from Islamabad to New Delhi.
And third, Trump’s refusal to announce a timetable for withdrawal makes much more strategic sense than Obama’s constant promises to retreat from the country. What purpose is served by giving the Taliban an invitation to wait us out?
Of course, Trump still had to make a superficial appeal to his base by promising to emphasize “killing terrorists” over “nation building.” But what does this even mean? Does he want to drain the reconstruction budget? Does he want to shift resources away from civil and economic development? If so, why does he claim that the U.S. will “continue its support for the Afghan government” and “participate in economic development”? Trump says “our support is not a blank check” and “our patience is not unlimited.” He expects “real reforms, real progress, and real results.” But these aren’t comments he’d be making if he didn’t realize that the United States’ role in Afghanistan extends beyond the battlefield.
Trump’s Afghanistan speech contained plenty of his characteristic nonsense – he boasted about “record-breaking” successes that have almost nothing to do with his leadership (like the liberation of Mosul). He celebrated the “absolutely perfect cohesion” of our armed forces and said patriotism leaves “no room for prejudice” days before banning transgender Americans from serving. He said the U.S. will “lift restrictions and expand authorities in the field,” but some of those restrictions are in place to protect civilians.
However, none of this changes the fact that Trump’s Afghanistan strategy is an improvement over the status quo. The Taliban can no longer look forward to an arbitrary withdrawal date, Pakistan is on notice and our relationship with India is poised to improve. This is better than most other alternatives, and it’s of the few cases where Trump’s inconsistency actually looks like a virtue. Here’s how he explained himself: “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.”
Even if you despise the new Afghanistan policy, that’s an attractive and unexpected admission from our embattled president.
Contact Matt Johnson at (785) 295-1282 or @mattjj89 on Twitter.