In his speech last night, President Trump vowed to win in Afghanistan. He declared, “We will always win.” He also said, “I’m a problem-solver, and in the end, we will win.” In addition,there was this: “The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory. They deserve the tools they need and the trust they have earned to fight and to win.”
Today, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sang a different, less optimistic tune. He told the Taliban, “We may not win [a battlefield victory], but neither will you.” He added:
We believe that we can turn the tide of what has been a losing battle over the last year and a half or so and at least stabilize the situation and, hopefully, start seeing some battlefield victories on the part of the Afghan forces.
Stabilizing the situation, seeing some battlefield victories, and preventing the Taliban from winning is a far cry from the U.S. winning, a distinction that Tillerson himself highlighted. Clearly, the Secretary of State was disputing what Trump said about the expected outcome of his Afghan policy. And what Trump said about that outcome was a key component of his effort to persuade a skeptical nation, including his base, to persevere in Afghanistan. America is tired of the stalemate Tillerson deemed the bast case scenario.
I suspect that Tillerson’s view is more realistic than Trump’s. But the Secretary of State shouldn’t contradict the president’s message. He should support it or not discuss it. (It’s possible, I suppose, that Trump wanted Tillerson to dampen expectations, though I can’t see how this helps Trump. In the short term, Tillerson’s words will be used against Trump’s policy. In the long term, if Tillerson proves to be right, he’ll look good and Trump will look bad.)
Tillerson also contradicted the president’s message on negotiating with the Taliban. Trump said:
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.
Tillerson showed none of the president’s skepticism about negotiating with the Taliban, nor did he condition a political settlement on military success. He said: “[A]t some point, we have to come to the negotiating table and find a way to bring this to an end.”
In other words, Tillerson wants, as President Obama did, to leverage a battlefield stalemate into negotiations with the Taliban. Trump may be willing to include some elements of the Taliban in a political settlement after we have kicked its ass.
Heads have rolled in this administration for offenses that seem less grave to me than Tillerson walking back Trump’s message on Afghanistan.