If there is an argument to made that after 16 years of a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan of various proportions, big, small and in-between, this is exactly the time to send an unspecified number of additional troops for an unspecified amount of time to that war-torn country, President Donald Trump failed to make it in his much-anticipated speech Monday evening in Ft. Myer, Va. Americans who tuned into the nationally-televised address might be forgiven if they found the Trump doctrine in South Asia suspiciously familiar (albeit served up with more bellicose language). It’s not all that much of a departure of what the last two presidents have said at various times during the long-running conflict.
Much of the speech was simply for Mr. Trump to admit that what he’s said in the past about Afghanistan, including as a candidate for president, was wrong. He wanted to pull troops out. He talked to his generals (and some rank-and-file soldiers, too) and realized that a quick withdrawal would “create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and al-Qaida.”
Add in some tough talk like: “In the end, we will win,” or “the killers need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms” and some knocks on President Barack Obama’s approach and this was mostly about advocating for a troop surge, a strategy that has been attempted by the U.S. in Afghanistan twice before.
That’s not to suggest President Trump faced a lot of easy choices in Afghan policy; he doesn’t. Nor should Americans expect a Trump approach to Southeast Asia to be a total departure from the past; it shouldn’t. But if this country is going to be asked to spill more blood in a conflict that has already taken the lives of nearly 2,400 U.S. soldiers and wounded 20,000 more, there needs to be more details provided than a vague description of more soldiers killing more terrorists. What would success in Afghanistan even look like? Mr. Trump is opposed to nation building. Fair enough. But what is the U.S. hoping to achieve in Afghanistan and what is the proper measure of that moment?
It is also troubling that Mr. Trump had so little to say about bringing diplomacy and the nation’s economic clout to bear on the problem. It’s surely been proven by now that U.S. military might can’t achieve victory alone. If bombing strategic targets in Afghanistan simply causes them to seek shelter in Pakistan, how much will bombing them again achieve? And if Mr. Trump tries to counter this problem by cutting off aid to Pakistan while cozying up to India, what will that accomplish other than destabilizing Pakistan and driving a wedge between that country and the U.S.?
The president’s military-centric view of foreign policy is problematic in this regard. Diplomacy ought to be at the forefront of this campaign, instead it’s being led almost exclusively by Defense Secretary James Mattis, a career U.S. Marine officer only three years removed from active service.
We said it when Mr. Obama was president, and we’ll say it again now: The U.S. appears to be headed toward a permanent military presence in Afghanistan. No U.S. president wants to be remembered as the one on watch when the current regime falls or the country descends into chaos or the Taliban or another of its ilk takes power. So instead, we find ourselves in a quagmire. Is it even possible to “win” our longest war? Or does winning really mean another decade and a half of looking at Afghanistan as some distant protectorate and occasionally sending in more troops when armed guerrillas start to overwhelm government forces? Perhaps this ought to be put to a vote. But wait, wasn’t it? Didn’t Americans just give an Electoral College victory to the less hawkish presidential candidate last November?
We applaud President Trump for listening to his advisers for once. We just wish he’d listen to people who work outside of the Pentagon as closely as he seems to listen to “his” generals. He might start with Maryland’s own Sen. Ben Cardin, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who this week called on the president to encourage a “robust diplomatic effort to advance a political solution.” That might not sound as exciting as threatening more destruction, but it sounds a lot more likely to actually achieve something meaningful in Afghanistan.
Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.