The red-headed stepchild of American wars, the one we largely ignore while making more of a fuss over other foreign matters, got what has become its habitual dose of early-administration attention Monday night. That the war in Afghanistan has been going on long enough for me to write that — it’s wrapping up its 16th year and is now under its third commander-in-chief, easily our longest war — should be evidence enough that the prior doses of attention were very far from sufficient. The question now is whether the results will change under President Trump.
The strategy, and much of the rhetoric, did change. President Obama had given the war an expiration date, an announced departure that I and many others criticized because it told our enemies they simply needed to hold on until that date had passed and our troops had left. That strategy, such as it was, was unburdened by any sense of victory or purpose. (It also didn’t stick, even during Obama’s tenure.) We may as well have brought all our soldiers home immediately as leave them there to fight an unwanted battle toward uncertain goals.
But we didn’t bring them home, and now Trump is saying they won’t leave until certain conditions are met. What those conditions are, he did not say. He did indicate he will not have unlimited patience for meeting them, and that seeing “determination and progress” from the Afghan government would be crucial to America’s continued commitment to their country. He also very plainly said our commitment will not include building up their country: “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”
Trump might not have outlined his conditions for ending the war, but his end-goal sounded clear enough: “strategically-applied force aims to create the conditions for a political process to achieve a lasting peace.” The president wants to amp up the firepower — Fox News cited a Pentagon statistic that airstrikes in Afghanistan nearly tripled in the first seven months of the year vs. the same time period last year: 1,984 vs. 705 — and force the Taliban and others to sue for peace rather than wait us out. Although Trump spoke of dealing terrorists “a lasting defeat,” he also allowed that “perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban.”
If I were guessing, he is counting on a reinvigorated war effort, unhindered by so many restrictions from Washington, to demoralize the Taliban sooner than later and bring them to the negotiating table. Whether that’s realistic is unclear. Let’s pray it is.
One thing worth noting is that Trump cast all this as an unwanted obligation, but one he couldn’t see fit to cast off:
“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts. But all my life, I have heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office. In other words, when you are president of the United States. So I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle.”
“When I became president, I was given a bad and very complex hand, but I fully knew what I was getting into. Big and intricate problems. But one way or another, these problems will be solved. I am a problem solver. And in the end, we will win. We must address the reality of the world as it exists right now, the threats we face, and the confronting of all of the problems of today, and extremely predictable consequences of a hasty withdrawal.”
Those portions of his speech seemed to be his attempt to square this new strategy with his campaign rhetoric about costly overseas adventures (even if he was somewhat less sanguine as a candidate about cutting and running from Afghanistan specifically … after years of thinking, or at least tweeting, otherwise). To the extent he’s dealing with the facts as he finds them and acting on the advice of his top military advisers about the consequences of staying vs. leaving, that’s good. But the test will come during the low moments under this strategy — and there will be low moments, no matter how sound the strategy — and whether he is tempted to change under pressure. His chosen course of action ultimately may prove to be the right one, but it seems unlikely to be terribly popular with Trump’s base or with Americans more broadly. He surely knows that going in. But as he acknowledged, it’s different “when you are president of the United States” and American soldiers are dying due to decisions you’ve made. An escalation that brings about victory is one thing. An escalation that simply marks another chapter in an interminable war is quite another.