Trump resists temptation to give up in Afghanistan

In an outstanding speech tonight, President Trump announced that the U.S. will not pull out of Afghanistan, but instead will fight with less restraint and more military forces. Trump needed to do two main things in his speech: (1) explain why he was breaking his campaign promise to abandon Afghanistan and (2) distinguish his approach to the fight from President Obama’s. Accomplishing the second objective would help make the breach of his campaign promise easier to swallow.

I believe Trump gave a sound and forceful explanation for why, now that he occupies the Oval Office and has heard from the generals, he sees the situation in Afghanistan differently than he did as a candidate. He pointed out the prevalence in the region of terrorist groups capable of one day organizing attacks against the U.S., as they did in 2001. He also noted the consequences of the U.S. pullout from Iraq under Obama.

I found Trump’s arguments persuasive. However, I already believed we should stay in Afghanistan. The real question is how Trump supporters who felt differently will react to the decision. If Trump is right about what would happen if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue, he can expect to retain the support of his base.

Trump was also able to distinguish the approach he announced tonight from Obama’s approach to Afghanistan. Most notably, as Trump pointed out, he did not announce a date for drawing down our forces and eventually exiting, as Obama stupidly did. Our force level and continued presence will depend on conditions on the ground, he emphasized.

Trump also stressed that he has given our generals and our warriors on the ground the power to fight and kill the enemy without the intervention of military lawyers and Washington bureaucrats. To his great credit, Trump wants to engage in warfare, not lawfare. He wants to win and is prepared to do what it takes.

But the real question is not whether, under Trump’s leadership, the U.S. will fight the war more intelligently. The real question is whether the U.S. will win.

The answer may depend in part on the resources, and especially the number of troops, Trump is willing to devote to the effort. Trump was silent about this. He said he wants to keep the enemy guessing. Maybe he also wants to avoid criticism from those who would say the number is too high and those who would say it is too low.

The speculation, based presumably on off-the-record comments by administration officials, is that Trump will add about 4,000 troops to the fight, and increase of around 50 percent. Would this be sufficient to turn the tide? I don’t know. However, it would not bring troop levels even close to what they were after the Obama surge, and those levels did not end the war.

Trump also said he would put diplomatic and economic pressure on Pakistan to stop providing sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban. If Pakistan nonetheless continues to provide sanctuary, we will attack the Taliban in Pakistan.

I’m skeptical that we coerce Pakistan into a wholehearted effort against the Taliban. And, although attacking the Taliban in Pakistan is a helpful measure, I don’t know that it’s a decisive one.

But this is all speculation. What we know is that Trump, far from abandoning Afghanistan, is increasing our war effort there; that he is eschewing Obama’s ridiculous time table approach; that he is taking a tougher stand with Pakistani; that he is deferring to the military on how to fight; and, at the same time, taking ownership of the war in Afghanistan. All of this is to the good, in my opinion.

So is this. Before the speech, those “in the know” were saying that Trump is going to try to negotiate with the Taliban. Maybe so, but that’s not what he said in his speech.

In his speech, he said that, down the road, once the Taliban is headed to defeat, there may be a place in a new government for Taliban elements. Why there should be in that circumstance, I don’t know. However, Trump’s statement is not a call to negotiate our way out of Afghanistan without achieving victory.

I don’t see how there can negotiations with a radical, fundamentalist, terrorist Islamic movement like the Taliban. I’m glad Trump didn’t quite go there in his speech, and I’m hopeful he won’t go there at all during his administration.