On Monday night, President Trump delivered an address to the nation on Afghanistan and what America’s future there will look like.
Trump’s proposed strategy is a mixed bag. It as some good qualities, some not so good elements, and some unknowns. Because of how many parts there are, it’s worth breaking his speech down and examining several pieces of his plan in turn.
The Good: Refusing to Withdraw
The first good thing Trump did was to not follow through on his initial instinct to withdraw. Perhaps being in the big chair changed his mindset.
No President wants to be known as “the President that lost [insert relevant country here].” Losing Afghanistan, especially after almost 16 years of fighting, would be a real foreign policy failure. Further, repeating the mistakes of Iraq by withdrawing from Afghanistan would be a tremendous waste of lives and money.
The Obama-era approach to war fighting, which relied on time tables, made no sense. No enemy or would-be enemy of the United States believes that they can defeat America in a conventional war. Their best hope is to fight a war of attrition, as one of my TCC colleagues discussed recently. Their goal is for enough people in the US to grow tired that the voting public demands an end to a seemingly unwinnable war. Giving the Taliban a timetable told them that they could achieve their goals if they held out until that deadline.
The Good: Rules of Engagement
Another good thing that Trump announced was the loosening of the rules of engagement. Changing the overly-restrictive Obama-era rules–which many argue contributed to a spike in battlefield casualties–will allow our forces to do the job that is necessary.
Despite the verbal spasms that got him into trouble during the campaign, Trump seems to be a hands-off commander-in-chief. He seems determined to let the war fighters fight the war. If the United States is to go to war, it should go to war to win. Micromanagement by civilian leadership makes that much more difficult.
The Bad: Mixed Messages
In the aftermath of Trump’s speech, the State Department posted a statement by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that seemed to differ from Trump’s speech. It said, in part:
The Taliban has a path to peace and political legitimacy through a negotiated political settlement to end the war. We stand ready to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban without preconditions.
Trump himself hinted at this in his speech:
Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban and Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.
This mixed messaging does not send a strong foreign policy message. On one hand, Trump says the era of nation building is over, and that the US will get back to “killing terrorists.” On the other, both he and his Secretary of State are suggesting that the Taliban could become a legitimate entity.
The Bad: Defeatist Attitudes
The next day, Tillerson expanded his take on the situation in Afghanistan:
This entire effort is intended to put pressure on the Taliban, to have the Taliban understand you will not win a battlefield victory — we may not win one, but neither will you. At some point we have to come to the negotiating table and find a way to bring this to an end.
No American official should ever say “we may not win [a battlefield victory].” The attitude of “we don’t expect to win” is one reason why protracted wars, like Afghanistan, become difficult to prosecute.
Further, Tillerson also said that he believes there are “moderate elements” of the Taliban that want peace. “Moderate Taliban” is a contradiction of terms. Any “peace” deal with a terrorist organization would not last long, and would only legitimize that which should be illegitimate.
The Unknown: Pakistan
Perhaps the most dramatic change in Trump’s speech was his tough talk on Pakistan. He bluntly criticized Pakistan’s approach to the Taliban.
The next pillar of our new strategy is to change the approach in how to deal with Pakistan. We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.
Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists. In the past, Pakistan has been a valued partner… We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars, at the same time they are housing the same terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change.
All of that is true. There is a reason why the Obama Administration did not ask for Islamabad’s permission before launching the Bin Laden raid. However, only time will tell if attaching strings to foreign aid to Pakistan will reap rewards.
The Unknown: India
To add to his tough Pakistan talk, Trump said that the United States should develop its strategic partnership with India. Trump called on India to contribute more financially to Afghanistan’s development as part of our shared interests in the region.
Developing our strategic partnership with India makes sense: as Trump said, India is the largest democracy in the world. Perhaps more importantly, however, India is a huge counterweight to China in that part of the world.
However, the current India-Pakistan relationship makes it impossible to determine whether or not this strategy will work.
For the powers that be in Islamabad, Pakistan’s top foreign policy concerns are India, India, India, India, and India. The two nations have been in conflict for decades over contested border territories. Plus, Pakistan claims to have killed several Indian soldiers in recent military clashes.
If the United States promotes increased Indian influence in Afghanistan, Pakistan may do even less against the Taliban.
A Change of Course
The change of course Trump laid out on Monday was a change not only for America, but for him personally. It was such a significant change that some of Trump’s most ardent supporters felt betrayed. Hopefully, it will work out for the better–both for the United States and Afghanistan.