Trump’s Bold New Afghanistan Strategy: Neither Bold, Nor New, Nor a Strategy

Trump indicates the direction he’s taking foreign policy. Photo: Mark Wilson

Before he decided to run for president, then–Armchair General Donald Trump was a harsh critic of the war in Afghanistan, tweeting periodic potshots at the Obama administration’s Afghanistan strategy between 2011 and 2015. He called the war a “total disaster,” a waste of money and American lives, and a losing war we should get out of immediately. Candidate Trump was no less critical of the war, pushing for the U.S. to pull out of intractable foreign conflicts and spend its money rebuilding the domestic economy rather than the faraway countries we destroyed.

But instead of speedily withdrawing the U.S. from the Afghan disaster, on Monday night President Donald Trump announced that he was extending it. Trump admitted that his “original instinct was to pull out,” but as in so many other policy areas he knew nothing about before January, the reality of making decisions as president proved much more complicated than he had expected. Displaying his characteristic talent for blaming everything on Barack Obama, he cited our “hasty withdrawal” from Iraq in 2011 as proof that quick withdrawals from wars, such as the one Donald Trump spent the past six years advocating in Afghanistan, were a categorical mistake.

So after almost 16 years of war and stalemate, Trump is giving the Pentagon yet another chance to get it right and defeat the Taliban (and now ISIS as well). Our soldiers, he said, “deserve a plan for victory.” Victory was a key theme of the evening, which the president loosely defined as “attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing Al-Qaeda, [and] preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan.”

Trump painted the broad strokes of his strategy back in June, when he revealed that he intended to give Defense Secretary James Mattis and his generals broad discretion to decide on troop levels and their degree of engagement in the conflict, without civilian micromanagement. In other words, whatever the generals said they needed, they would get.

Prior to the speech, Fox News and other outlets had reported that Trump was approving the deployment of 4,000 more troops to supplement the 8,500 already on the ground in Afghanistan, but Trump presented no figures in his speech. Indeed, he stressed that as the first core pillar of his new strategy, “We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for military activities.” Trump appears to have internalized the neoconservative critique of Obama’s approach to Afghanistan that by announcing in advance the date of the U.S. withdrawal (which was determined in a treaty with the Afghan government), his predecessor had let the enemy know exactly how long they would have to wait us out. Accordingly, Trump said there would now be “a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions.”

That sounds an awful lot like an open-ended commitment to stay in Afghanistan as long as necessary, yet Trump also stressed that “our commitment is not unlimited and our support is not a blank check,” and that he expected the Afghan government to bear its share of the burden. He did not go into detail, however, as to what he would do if the Afghans failed to live up to their end of the bargain while the nebulous conditions for American withdrawal remained unmet.

The second core pillar of Trump’s Afghanistan and South Asia strategy, he continued, was a “dramatic” shift to our approach to Pakistan: We would no longer tolerate that country’s habit of providing safe havens to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations. “We have been paying Pakistan billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the terrorists we are fighting,” he shouted. “That will change immediately.” He also said we would strengthen our strategic partnership with India and ask it to chip in more toward the rebuilding of Afghanistan.

In other words, Trump’s “dramatic shift” is a direct continuation of what the Obama administration and Congress had been doing over the past several years: cutting aid to Islamabad while strengthening military and security cooperation with New Delhi. It is unclear how Trump intends to do a better job than the last two administrations at forcing Pakistan to get its act together, particularly with a deliberately understaffed State Department. If the U.S. were to cut ties with Pakistan entirely, that could rapidly destabilize South Asia and exacerbate many of the regional problems Trump’s strategy is meant to solve.

The third and most troubling pillar of Trump’s Afghanistan policy entails a significant loosening of the rules governing how our armed forces prosecute the war there. Noting that he had already lifted some restrictions imposed by the Obama administration, he said he would “expand authority for American forces to target terrorist and criminal networks in Afghanistan,” letting military leaders make decisions on the ground without “micromanagement from Washington.” These restrictions, many of them the product of treaties with the Afghan government, limited the ability of U.S. forces to engage in direct combat with the Taliban, which military officers found frustrating.

Trump’s decision to confront terror groups in Afghanistan with “swift, decisive, and overwhelming force” could perhaps pave the way for the victory he so desperately seeks, but it could also put us at greater risk of violating our treaties and international law, or alienating the Afghan government and people. Civilian oversight of military operations prevents them from becoming overzealous, and the withdrawal of this oversight can lead to disaster. Trump noted that the ultimate objective in Afghanistan was a political solution that could potentially include some elements of the Taliban, but unleashing the military probably won’t create conditions amenable to that solution.

At least Trump didn’t take up his recently canned adviser Steve Bannon’s proposal — first floated by Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater (and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s brother) — to replace the U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan with mercenaries. Considering how well that worked out in Iraq during the Bush administration, Trump can take credit for not choosing the very worst of his many bad options. America’s corrupt war profiteers need not fret over lost billions in profits, though; the president has expressed interest in handing them lucrative contracts to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral wealth before China swoops in and takes it first. Trump may have been referring cryptically to this on Monday when he said we would “participate in economic development in order to defray the cost of this war to us.”

To the extent that Trump’s Afghanistan strategy is a strategy at all, the irony is that the president who ran on an anti-Establishment, anti-globalist, effectively anti-imperial platform is pursuing a policy not all that different from what his predecessor pursued or from what his opponent would have had she won. “To be honest,” Derek Chollet, an assistant secretary of Defense in the Obama administration, told the Washington Post, “It’s probably pretty close to what a Hillary Clinton would do.”

Indeed, for a strategy billed as a dramatic departure from the Obama doctrine, the only major differences Trump revealed on Monday are that he intends to leave the American public almost entirely in the dark about long-term plans, troop numbers, and timelines; and give the Pentagon a potentially dangerous amount of authority to do whatever its leaders deem militarily necessary to secure a “victory” that may just not be in the cards. But the objective remains the same. “We are not asking others to change their way of life,” Trump said, stressing that the goal of U.S. policy in Afghanistan was not “nation-building,” but rather, defeating terrorism. In other words, a carbon copy of Obama’s goal.

Trump’s Bold New Afghanistan Strategy Isn’t Bold. Or New.