I’ll confess that I didn’t catch Trump’s speech on Afghanistan last night, being in the midst of a a 13.5 hour drive back from the eclipse totality zone in Tennessee. I wound up having to watch it this morning, and I’m sorry to say that there are still more questions to be answered. When Allahpundit previewed it I thought he did a good job of identifying the President’s dwindling options there and why he would likely not be making too many huge changes.
In reality, an enemy that’s fought for 16 years will go on fighting for a few more knowing that America is tired of this war and aimless in its goals, reduced to training and retraining an Afghan national force that’ll seemingly never be ready to stand on its own against the Taliban and perhaps isn’t even inclined to. Trump is ordering the surge because he doesn’t want to be viewed as the president who gave up on Afghanistan, which is understandable, but I wonder if his own isolationist impulses will gradually override those worries as this latest build-up inevitably leads to a new round of stalemate.
I’m not sure if what we’re looking at now could be called “a surge” in terms of comparisons to Iraq Round Two (which actually worked out pretty well until Bush 43 left office). While the tone was positive (which I’ll get to in a moment) I was also left with a feeling that this was still more of an effort to not lose than to actually win, and there’s clearly a political motivation to follow that path. Earlier that day, Andrew Malcolm had struck a similar tone, suggesting that Trump will need to up the ante a bit but avoid the risk of being the guy who lost the war.
Mattis’ recommendations, discussed at the Camp David meeting Friday, will surely require additional forces. Probably a fair number of Special Ops too. But the total won’t be so many that it looks like a new war or the tedious and precarious nation-building that campaigner Trump denounced — or that tribal Afghanistan is historically unwilling to abide.
Given strains on the rebuilding military depleted during Obama’s years and post-Vietnam wariness over fighting insurgencies on a large-scale, Trump seems unlikely to order a large surge. But, wait. He does take pride in being unpredictable.
Keep that idea of Afghanistan being a tribal nation which is “historically unwilling to abide” any sort of nation building in mind. We’ll circle back to it. But first I wanted to offer a nod to what Ed pointed out this morning on this subject. Trump mentioned the connection with India, and involving them made things more tricky, given their traditional grudge with Pakistan. But that brings us to the critical question, particularly when you consider Pakistan’s less than stellar record of being our “ally” in this endeavor. How long does the original coalition (or what remains of it) want to keep investing in this historically losing bet, particularly when relations between even some of our most reliable allies are strained at the current time?
India and Pakistan, Germany and Turkey, China and Japan, Russia and, well… just about everyone. Things were never completely black and white with some of these nations, but the last five years have really seen the situation turn into even more of a toxic stew, particularly when you consider all the friction inside of the EU and the effect that ISIS has had on the entire civilized world. Some of the assumptions we made about our global support to reform the nation of Afghanistan more than fifteen years ago are on shaky ground at best.
Trump was probably willing to go all in to win, but it’s now obviously fair to ask if there’s still a winning solution out there short of turning the entire country of Afghanistan into a toxic, smoking hole. Nations have been trying to either conquer or reform and reshape Afghanistan for pretty much all of modern history. Everyone has failed. And while there are no doubt many good people in Afghanistan who would like to see their nation reach a place of stability and join at least the 19th century, if not the 20th or 21st, it’s not a consensus position. I’m not just talking about the Taliban here. There are plenty of “mainstream” Afghan citizens and leaders who may not be fans of the previous Islamist regime, but also resent allied efforts to westernize or even civilize them. The number of sneak attacks on our troops by the very people we trained is a constant reminder of this. They can’t all be Taliban moles.
Last night Trump repeated the idea that our troops will “fight to win.” He also said that Americans deserved a definition for what winning would look like while promising that there would be “no blank check” on this effort. I think those are both fine sentiments which Americans have been waiting to see addressed for years now, but there were no such definitions offered in that address. What if there is no winning formula anymore which doesn’t involve turning over the keys to the folks who have been supporting us, pulling out and declaring that if they can’t stand on their own two feet by now they’re never going to?
Trump as much as said that his instincts were to get out, but he decided to go against those instincts. This is the president who got elected because he shoots from the hip and trusts his instincts. (I’m not going to invoke a “Decider in Chief” reference here.) Trump’s generals have told him, according to multiple sources, that pulling out would be a disaster. I completely agree. But what if staying is also a disaster? I understand and agree with the President’s long stated position that he doesn’t want to telegraph his punches to our enemies and he won’t warn them in advance of what we’re going to do. But at least in the broad strokes, I would like to see a Part Two to last night’s speech. Tell us what victory looks like and give us a reasonable estimate of how much further blood and treasure will be required to get us over that finish line.