(Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
It’s a rare occasion when I can sit down to watch Donald Trump speak, and come away with an actual policy critique. More often, any substantial policy he might originally have sought to articulate is subsumed under the scandal of the day. Last Tuesday’s press conference, ostensibly on infrastructure, quick became about something totally different.
But Trump’s Monday speech on Afghanistan was another story. It was completely read from a teleprompter, with very few infamous Trumpian interjections. It was actually a pretty good speech. It had a clear (if somewhat flawed and intentionally vague) policy agenda embedded in it.
Now, one good speech does not make the president, and this is a lesson we all should have learned by now. There are only so many times “Donald Trump became the president tonight.” The speech to Congress, his scripted condemnation of white supremacists last week and Monday’s Afghanistan address prove that the sober, serious president we saw on TV is the exception that proves the rule: Trump is improvisational, erratic and ignorant.
Let’s move, for a moment, past the Trump obsession and seize this rare chance for actual policy analysis.
The first thing to know going into any discussion of American policy in Afghanistan is, like in North Korea, there are no good options. “No good options,” is actually an interesting idea because it is nonpartisan. No matter what actual overarching ideological goal you have in Afghanistan, you’re unlikely to find a good solution.
Say your goal is reducing international terrorism. Well, you should probably go around killing as many terrorists as you can, as Trump suggested in his speech on Monday. But what if the way you go about doing that actually creates more terrorism, or leads to instability, or is too expensive and bloody?
Perhaps, rather than focusing on a simple military approach, you instead commit to the “hearts and minds” strategy: winning over the local population and stabilizing a sympathetic government. This is essentially the approach taken by coalition forces for most of the war. But it hasn’t worked. The Afghan government is weak, it’s people are at best mildly supportive of the Western-backed authority and the Taliban is reportedly gaining in strength with the withdrawal of most Western combat forces. So how will more of the same help?
That same logic applies even if your goal isn’t directly counteracting terrorism but instead simply improving the lives of 35 million Afghans, the focus on what we call nation-building. The problem is that terrorism and the Taliban are the single greatest threat to the stability of that country, and so any genuinely compassionate objective must take countering the Taliban into consideration.
What if your goal is to force a political settlement that would leave the Taliban alive but ideally stabilize the country and put an end to terrorism there? Well then you have the same series of bad options: attempt to fight the Taliban into submission, strengthen a domestic consensus around the government, or simply wait it out and hope something changes.
These are the macro strategies that various military thinkers and policy makers have proposed over the 16 year engagement in Afghanistan. None have worked particularly well. In part, this is because of disagreement over the tactics used in any given strategies — and there are a great many tactics available.
Should drone strikes, for example, be used? They are a good way to safely kill terrorists, but they are among some of the best ways to lose the hearts and minds of Afghan civilians. What about assassinations? How should we go about training Afghan government security forces? How much should Western forces be involved in combat?
All these tactical questions have strategic implications, and many of them fit within multiple strategies. The training of the Afghan military, for example, is important both for the goal of destroying the Taliban and stabilizing the government.
That interconnectedness of issues and strategies is part of what makes the situation in Afghanistan one in which there are no good answers. A focus on one goal necessarily impacts the chances of success in another, and achieving one objective might undermine the prospects of the other.
Who’s to say if Trump took all these things into consideration when he decided on a plan, though I’m sure American generals and policy thinkers did. That’s probably why Trump’s plan turned out the way it did.
The president’s strategy is, in my opinion, essentially the same policy pursued by the United States for around a decade, with three important alterations: rejection of nation-building, emphasis on secrecy, and a focus on Pakistan. All three impact the overarching strategies of the US in Afghanistan. Yet none are particularly outside the scope of traditional US thinking on this subject, and so the outrage that greeted Trump’s speech from some quarters seems, well, contrived.
The rejection of nation-building is by far the most important rhetorical shift in US policy. It’s unclear what exactly in means when put into action, but Trump’s focus on “killing terrorists” is notable, whether it manifests itself in less development dollars to the state or perhaps fewer training advisors.
The emphasis on secrecy is an interesting one, and is consistent with Trump’s previous statements about military and negotiating strategy. If I were being charitable, I would note that it makes military sense: an uncertain enemy is less stable, less resilient. If I were being critical, I would note that this desire for secrecy works strongly against the democratic notions of transparency and oversight, and therefore towards Trump’s apparent authoritarian inclinations.
The focus on Pakistan is both interesting and substantial. Pakistan has been a thorn in the United States’ side for many decades, despite being one of its closest allies in the region. The Islamic Republic’s instability, its corruption and its tacit acceptance of terrorist groups in its northwestern regions (including its own chapter of the Taliban) has made America’s fight against terrorism almost impossible. It has been part of Pakistan’s longterm strategy to keep Afghanistan destabilized, and unless it changes its approach, America will struggle to achieve its own objectives.
Even agreeing with Trump concerning Pakistan, though, it’s important to wonder how exactly he hopes to succeed where both George W. Bush and Barack Obama failed. And Trump did not supply us with any specifics, merely the final objective of a more cooperative Pakistan.
One hint he did give us was his emphasis on the role of India in the region, and his desire for greater cooperation between the United States and the world’s largest democracy. This could signal a continuation of the slow but significant shift away from Pakistan (who has a close relationship with China) and towards India (who sees China as a rival). This new alignment definitely fits with Trump’s own beliefs about the threat of a rising China. How he intends to both force greater cooperation from Pakistan and get significantly closer to India is unclear.
These three main alterations do not, even together, represent a radical change in US policy in the region. They do, however, show that Trump is willing to divert somewhat from the current trajectory, though this is not unexpected.
I should note that this continues a trend of Trump’s relative orthodoxy in the foreign policy sphere, which I wrote about a couple weeks ago. He further implied his own lack of engagement in the area by admitting both that he changed his mind about Afghanistan, and by promising to devolve greater decision-making power to generals on the battlefield. He cloaked this latter choice as a boost to military efficiency, but it also represents Trump’s tendency to delegate heavily in foreign affairs.
Trump’s Afghan policy does not deserve the outrage it has received from the left, or at least none of the new outrage. It’s different, but not by much.