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Our New(?) Afghan Strategy

Terry H. Schwadron

Aug. 22, 2017

President Trump, who is against American involvement in overseas conflicts that don’t put America First, now is for sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, extending the United States’ longest war. He is also in favor of freeing the military to make its own decisions, probably to pursue enemies across the Pakistan border, and to kill terrorists.

As a strategy announcement after months of review, it was a strange announcement, delivered before a captive audience of soldiers at Ft. Meade. If anything, it was a policy change to kill rather than train Afghans to kill. But there is no particular objective, no discussion of how, and a lot of talk about “victory,” without ever describing what that is.

As President effectively for about one-third of the nation, Mr. Trump asked trust last night from all of us in committing troops to a fight he campaigned for two years was a waste of American lives and investment. That he should change his mind is not a surprise. What is a surprise is that he actually had to learn something before having a gut reaction, in this case relying on the advice of generals, the few remaining senior advisers he has remaining.

The generals, led by James Mattis at Defense, were thoughtful with the flighty President. Wisely, they told him, tell us what you want to achieve and we will come up with a plan that delivers. Whatever the outcome, this is a Trump war now.

But in listening intently to the President, it was not very clear what exactly we are doing next in Afghanistan. He previously had authorized shoring up an increasingly difficult experience for the current presence of about 8,000 U.S. troops with another estimated 4,000, but there were no numbers last night — or maybe ever. Instead, he broadly challenged Kabul to come up with results, openly insulted nuclear-equipped Pakistan for hiding terrorists, asked India, Pakistan’s vowed enemy to step in, and said our purpose is to kill terrorists, not help Afghanistan rebuild its country.

Mr. Trump’s plaint has been, “we’re not winning,” which last night turned into a commitment to “win.” But he never outlined what winning looks like. His speech will not change the fact that Taliban leadership has picked up elements from al-Qaeda, ISIS and Syrian fighters in growing more daring on raids first in outlying provinces with deadly raids into Kabul as well. The Americans who remain are there to advise a shaky Afghan Army that too often has shown that its uniforms may be on bodies with allegiances to the other side.

What does change is that this President won’t tell us what he — or we — is doing. There were so many possibilities from last night’s speech, a sedate and serious written speech, that he could equally be talking about withdrawing as recommitting to a military future. Though he said he saw the need for economic, diplomatic and military work, there was talk only of killing. There is no State Departmnet in place to carry out a wide-ranging strategy, there are questions about what the Afghans want from the U.S. overall.

It all sounded a bit as if he was trying to persuade himself rather than the rest of us, a “weary recognition” of the realities, as the New York Times coverage reflected.

There was little recognition that for Afghan warlords, local political and tribal alliances, the region’s culture is not built for instant American solutions. Any military solution requires a political strategy as well, towards a government that can actually govern, that is not corrupt, or run by local tribes. Local clocks are set for generational time, not six months of mop-up duty. whatever the President doesn’t like today in Afghanistan will be there next year and the year after.

From the speech, we still have no strategy for the Afghan region — not only just Afghanistan, but Pakistan as well, other than public rebuke for allowing the Taliban and other objectionable groups to use the western hills of Pakistan as refuges. Though he did not describe numbers of troops, it is unclear what 4,000 additional U.S. troops, however great, can achieve. Former President Obama sent in tens of thousands of U.S. troops. As a campaigner, Mr. Trump said America was losing in Afghanistan and should withdraw. .

Despite the President’s remarks, it is unclear what the American interest is in Afghanistan, except as a possible country-sized training area for terrorists There was no discussion really about all the allies he has talked to in Europe or the Middle East to join us in committing troops.

Simply put, what does a Trump “victory” in Afghanistan look like?

Of all the possibilities under review for he policy objectives described last night , the worst prospects were for use of contractor forces, hiring groups with hired ex-soldiers to fight our wars for us.

Also striking, of course, is that the pitch to trust him as President and leader of the free world is coming from a guy who can’t keep a White House functioning, who is under siege from a variety of self-inflicted wounds and who is more concerned about his personal image and his personal fortunes than in creating an overall, understandable pathway to the future.

Just incidentally, I couldn’t help thinking, the troops he would send into Afghanistan include those who were descended from slaves, and those who are transgender, and those who are Jews, all people who have been on the hurtful end of Mr. Trump’s lame explanations for Charlottesville. The President shows a unique ability to contradict himself from hour to hour towards achieving whatever he views as the most valuable deal just over the horizon.

But Afghanistan is not a deal, not a negotiation. This is a decades-long campaign.


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