For a thirty minute prime-time address to the nation, President Trump’s Afghanistan speech last night actually told us very little about the Administration’s new strategy. It was heavy on rhetoric about victory and re-orienting American objectives, but light on how we might measure victory in a war that has been relentlessly consuming American blood and treasure for the better part of 16 years.
Presumably, these metrics were defined internally. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who reportedly already had the authority to send additional troops into theater, admirably refused to do so without a proper strategic review of just what the mission hoped to achieve. Just ahead of Trump’s announcement, he signaled that he was “satisfied” with the “sufficiently rigorous” process. If we think Mattis is a serious and competent person—and we here at TAI do—we can assume that a working strategy, with a rigorous definition of “victory,” exists somewhere in the White House.
The President pointedly refused to divulge what it is, claiming as he has in the past that he does not wish to tip his hand to the enemy. What he laid out instead were themes. Taking those themes at face value, we can try to discern what kind of fight he envisions—and how it might turn out to be different from past Administrations’ approaches.
Since its start, the war in Afghanistan has comprised three components: A counter-terrorism mission to prevent al-Qaeda and now ISIS from gaining a safe haven, a counter-insurgency strategy aimed at the Taliban, and a nation-building component to form something resembling a liberal democratic society in Afghanistan.
Trump’s war in Afghanistan is almost completely focused on the counter-terrorism component, with a nod to counter-insurgency only as a means to ensuring success in denying safe havens to globally-minded radicals. From the President’s remarks last night:
From now on, victory will have a clear definition. Attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing Al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.
As for nation-building, that mission is now officially over for the United States:
America will continue its support for the Afghan government and the Afghan military as they confront the Taliban in the field. Ultimately, it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future, to govern their society and to achieve an everlasting peace. We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society. We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.
If the President has decided to end America’s efforts to rebuild Afghanistan “in our own image,” as he put it, it probably won’t change much on the ground. NGOs and America’s NATO allies will almost certainly be willing to pick up the slack in trying to build schools and train judges, as long as the overall security situation can be stabilized. And insofar as the Afghan government relies on U.S. foreign aid for a substantial part of its budget, it remains to be seen exactly to what degree the U.S. will actually turn off the taps.
Furthermore, focusing on counter-terrorism is not a bad move. The counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan has arguably been the most successful part of America’s efforts in that country. It’s also the simplest to carry out and has the fewest strategic requirements. All the United States needs to deny safe havens to terrorists in Afghanistan as effectively as in countries like Somalia and Syria is some stability of governance in the capital (and preferably a few of the largest cities) and a base to launch airstrikes from. Bagram will do just fine, though the base does not ultimately have to be inside the country.
Still, counter-insurgency (COIN) remains critical, despite the President’s rather desultory attitude toward it. The speech itself offers little insight as to what is to be done about the Taliban beyond bombing them more in hopes of a breakthrough. The truth is that the vast majority of American troops in Afghanistan are there to advise and train the Afghan army. The conflict has been effectively “Afghanized,” with Afghan troops bearing the brunt of the fight and suffering enormous casualties as a result. The problem is that the rate at which they are fighting and dying is unsustainable, especially given that they are also losing territory at the same time. Some number of American troops would be able to reverse that grim trend. But for how long?
The time component has always been the part that makes the COIN component so difficult. If they know you’re leaving, the thinking goes, they’ll just wait you out. Advocates like Senator John McCain have consistently argued for virtually open-ended commitments to these sorts of fights—in Iraq, in Syria, and yes, in Afghanistan. As Donald Trump knows well, however, there is vanishingly little appetite for these kinds of endless wars, especially among his base, but also well beyond it. Of course, unlike Obama, whose handling of the war in Afghanistan Trump views with utmost scorn, Trump refused to put a definite end date to the COIN efforts in Afghanistan. But at the same time, he didn’t give the McCains of the world what they wanted either. A date was not specified, but Trump went out of his way to stress that “our patience is not unlimited.”
Senator McCain in particular may not like the analogy, but it’s all redolent of another interminable war in America’s living memory: Vietnam. President Trump’s use of the Nixonian formulation that the U.S. seeks “an honorable and enduring outcome” for Afghanistan suggests that all the U.S. may be seeking is a “decent interval” after it withdraws before the Taliban take over running things. Trump gestured at the possibility of a political settlement, but didn’t appear too sanguine about its prospects. And indeed, perhaps it need not come to pass. As we’ve noted above, a pure counter-terror approach to Afghanistan can be prosecuted over the long term with a pretty light special forces footprint in-country, and little care about the final political outcome for Afghanistan as a country. Call it the Yemenization of Afghanistan approach.
Trump’s speech went far beyond Afghanistan itself. The President’s national security team, he noted, produced nothing less than a “a comprehensive review of all strategic options in Afghanistan and South Asia.” The result was the most full-throated rebuke of Pakistan that we’ve ever heard from an American President:
…Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people. We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting.
But that will have to change. And that will change immediately. No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials. It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order and to peace.
The message is unambiguous: get with the program, or else! But will new threats, boldly stated, have any effect? Almost certainly not. Regular readers know that Pakistan’s stance on Islamic terrorism is not merely born of stubbornness, but is in fact a strategy carefully considered on many levels—a balancing act between ensuring its own internal security and keeping radicals at the ready to be used against its arch-rival India. No amount of American anger is likely to alter that calculus.
What can Trump actually do, apart from cutting aid and fulminating? U.S. airstrikes in Pakistan have dropped to virtually zero in recent years. Most of the strikes that have occurred were either cleared with Pakistan or were covered by a standing agreement. The Trump Administration may well be tempted to throw this trend into reverse, hard, as it pursues its counter-terrorism goals aggressively. And it could do so without bothering to ask the Paks for permission, if it wants to be particularly disrespectful.
The President also called on India to do more in Afghanistan—albeit by way of his own peculiarly mercantilist worldview:
We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.
This, too, is a neuralgic point for the Paks, who are terrified of India using Afghanistan to encircle them. This, too, will annoy them.
But none of this is actually news to Islamabad. Frustrations ran high even in George W. Bush’s time, relations were at a low point by the time President Obama left the Oval Office, and the Trump Administration has been telegraphing its extreme displeasure for months, going so far as to praise India’s involvement in Afghanistan last June. Pakistan has as a result already been casting ever more amorous glances at China for years now, and that dynamic is only likely to intensify.
On the one hand, an argument can be made that Trump’s decision to antagonize is exacerbating a dangerous nuclear standoff in the region is reckless. On the other, Trump’s defenders would doubtless reply, the situation is already fraught, and we are not doing anyone any favors by pretending that achieving our goals in Afghanistan is compatible with cordial relations with Pakistan. Maybe the added antagonism just doesn’t matter, one way or the other.
President Trump’s first instincts, as he said, were to withdraw, and his national security team convinced him otherwise. Perhaps they convinced him it was necessary to stay the course by highlighting the threat of terrorism, and the President has now attempted to do the same for the benefit of his skeptical base. “Stay the course” repackaged as “kill ISIS,” with a symbolic whack at Pakistan thrown in for good measure—boilerplate establishment foreign policy made palatable for the anti-establishment set. If that’s in fact what happened, the policy may not last the first term.
Judging by the speech alone, Trump seems to favor a relatively hard-nosed approach to the war that really only focuses on counter-terrorism. At the same time, he’s also likely to delegate maximum responsibility to the generals and only check in when the news compels him to do so. The result could easily be mission creep, and the attendant continuation of the quagmire that Obama himself handed down to his successor. And then Trump may find himself, just like Obama, estranged from the generals that boxed him in.
And where American foreign policy goes from there is anyone’s guess.