More than six years ago, I wrote that we should get out of Afghanistan. We conducted a poll, and 74% of our readers agreed. So President Trump’s inclination to wind down our effort there, as articulated on the campaign trail, was not at all unusual.
Last night the president said that he has changed his mind and will pursue victory in Afghanistan. The first thing that struck a listener was that Trump delivered his speech strongly, with conviction. This was a welcome contrast with his predecessor, who was a weak public speaker. Moreover, unlike some of Trump’s impromptu efforts, he knew his text well and had obviously studied and refined it.
By way of preface, the president argued that “the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable. … A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11th.” Trump supported this point by noting the terrible consequences of our premature withdrawal from Iraq:
[A]s we know, in 2011, America hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq. As a result, our hard-won gains slipped back into the hands of terrorist enemies. Our soldiers watched as cities they had fought for, and bled to liberate, and won, were occupied by a terrorist group called ISIS. The vacuum we created by leaving too soon gave safe haven for ISIS to spread, to grow, recruit, and launch attacks. We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq.
That is certainly true, but Afghanistan arguably lacks Iraq’s strategic importance. It is an open question whether we could destroy terrorist training centers and the like without having much physical presence and without trying to control territory.
The president said that our strategy in Afghanistan will change in the following ways; I have added my comments:
As a result of our comprehensive review, American strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia will change dramatically in the following ways:
A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions. …
Conditions on the ground — not arbitrary timetables — will guide our strategy from now on.
This is a long-overdue change.
Another fundamental pillar of our new strategy is the integration of all instruments of American power — diplomatic, economic, and military — toward a successful outcome.
Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen. …
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.
Few will argue with Trump’s emphasis on killing terrorists. But I think it has been a while since we have done any serious nation-building in Afghanistan. The country is so culturally backward as to appear hopeless, at least for the foreseeable future.
The next pillar of our new strategy is to change the approach and 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. …
In the past, Pakistan has been a valued partner. Our militaries have worked together against common enemies. The Pakistani people have suffered greatly from terrorism and extremism. We recognize those contributions and those sacrifices.
But 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. servicemembers and officials. It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace.
This is another long-overdue change. Whether it will seriously impact events in Afghanistan, I don’t know. But Pakistan is a major problem in its own right. Like Saudi Arabia, but perhaps to an even greater extent, it is a purported ally that does much to undermine civilization around the world.
Another critical part of the South Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India — the world’s largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States. …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 is consistent with Trump’s view that America’s allies need to do more to help us on security matters–a view that I and a large majority of Americans share. But isn’t “economic assistance and development” nation-building? The most practical contribution India can make to our effort in Afghanistan is financial support.
Finally, my administration will ensure that you, the brave defenders of the American people, will have the necessary tools and rules of engagement to make this strategy work, and work effectively and work quickly.
I have already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our warfighters that prevented the Secretary of Defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy. Micromanagement from Washington, D.C. does not win battles.
This is obviously a positive and important change. Lawyers can’t fight wars. How much difference it will make remains to be seen, but it can only help.
In his concluding comments, Trump revisited his rejection of nation-building:
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.
The stronger the Afghan security forces become, the less we will have to do. Afghans will secure and build their own nation and define their own future. We want them to succeed.
But we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over. Instead, we will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interests. We are not asking others to change their way of life, but to pursue common goals that allow our children to live better and safer lives. This principled realism will guide our decisions moving forward.
“Principled realism” is a phrase we likely will continue to hear from the president and his subordinates. Does it amount to a winning strategy? Only, I think, if lethal attacks on the terrorists are stepped up dramatically. Even then, Afghanistan’s history offers little encouragement. For now, at a minimum, it is good to hear our commander in chief talking about victory–a word that was rarely if ever used, in connection with America’s security interests, by his predecessor.