If there is a compelling case to be made for deepening the United States military involvement in Afghanistan, where the 16-year-old war has already lasted longer than any other in American history, President Trump
did not make it in his speech Monday night.
Rather than the comprehensive strategy that is called for, his plan amounted to a jumble of ideas that lacked detail and coherence and were often contradictory. Having spent years criticizing America’s involvement in Afghanistan, he now appears inclined toward an open-ended commitment, but with no real ways to measure success and no hint of a timetable for withdrawal.
New troops will be required, he suggested, but he did not say how many (there are 8,400 there now). Nor did he explain, much less guarantee, how a few thousand more troops could succeed when the more than 100,000 troops deployed during the Obama administration
The president said that his “original instinct was to pull out” — which would have been consistent with his steady criticism as a private citizen of America’s commitment — but that he had been persuaded by the generals who dominate his national security team that a “hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda.” That, he said, would be unacceptable.
With this speech, Mr. Trump
has taken ownership of the war, which until now he has essentially fobbed off on the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, told two months ago by Mr. Trump
that he could deploy another roughly 4,000 troops to Afghanistan, sensibly declined to do that, at least until the president announced his strategy. Now Mr. Trump
has set forth a plan, although it’s hard to dignify as strategy an address in which he said, “We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.” He seems not to understand that presidents owe it to voters to be transparent.
What we are left with is a set of intentions, which are what? Nothing less than “victory,” he said, because “in the end, we will win.” But what constitutes victory, and will Americans fight on foreign soil until every terrorist is dead? “Attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing Al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America
before they emerge,” he proclaimed, which seemed a million miles away from his earlier doubts about foreign entanglements. (There was no mention of collateral civilian casualties, which have recently gone up and angered local populations.)
The accounting so far shows that American forces have degraded Al Qaeda. But the Taliban is an indigenous group, and during Barack Obama’s presidency top generals and officials agreed that the Taliban could not be defeated militarily, and must be brought into a political reconciliation process. Mr. Trump
gave short shrift to that approach, saying that a successful military effort was a necessary precondition to political reconciliation.
At the end of his presidency, Mr. Obama began withdrawing troops on a fixed timetable, then stopped the pullout at 8,400 troops because the Afghans wanted the Americans around to train their own forces during a Taliban resurgence. The prospect of a deadline was supposed to pressure the Afghans to get serious about corruption and political infighting. Mr. Trump
argued that deadlines allowed the Taliban to wait it out and that he would judge the success of the mission according to “conditions on the ground.” So much for engaging the Taliban in talks, or the government in Kabul in reform.
Any successful strategy must consider the regional context and, to some extent, Mr. Trump
did that. He took a tough tone on Pakistan, which has long played a double game, taking billions of dollars in aid from Washington while giving safe haven to the Taliban and other militants; the president hinted that some aid could be withheld. Mr. Trump
might have further angered Pakistan by urging India to provide more economic aid to Afghanistan; Pakistan is already unsettled by India’s $1 billion investment in Afghanistan
and will be unhappier still if that is increased.
Not mentioned were Russia, China and Iran, all of which have an interest in Afghanistan
and should be enlisted to help promote regional stability. Mr. Trump
insisted he would bring diplomatic, economic and military levers to bear on Afghanistan, but his words ring hollow given how he has decimated the State Department with spending cuts and by leaving unfilled important positions, including, remarkably, that of ambassador to Afghanistan.
A case can surely be made for maintaining American troops at current levels to keep the government from being overrun by the Taliban and to offset Pakistan, Iran and Russia as they seek to enlarge their influence. But as to the future? Mr. Trump
and his administration need to provide many more answers.
©2017 The New York Times News Service