Our very unconventional president laid out a rather conventional strategy in Afghanistan, one that will likely extend America’s longest war for years to come.
Listening to his generals, President Donald Trump said Monday night he rejected his first instinct to pull out of Afghanistan entirely. While “the American people are weary of war without victory,” he said a hasty withdrawal would re-create a safe haven for terrorists, and he’s probably right.
“Our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the enormous price so many have paid,” he said in a prime-time speech in front of soldiers at Fort Myer, Va.
While this was far more presidential than threatening North Korea by tweet, Trump did not outline a clear way to finally end the U.S. mission in a war-torn country where we have expended immense amounts of blood and treasure already. The American death toll passed 2,400 this year.
Trump’s “path forward” may be a lesser evil, but it keeps us stuck in the Afghanistan quagmire. He said he will not set any timetables for withdrawal, but instead issued ambitious goals that could take years.
The president also said he would not make troop levels public, though he is expected to sign off on about 4,000 more U.S. troops to train the Afghan military and confront Taliban and Islamic State fighters. It seems doubtful, however, that 4,000 more troops will be enough to break the stalemate and force the resurgent Taliban to the negotiating table. The additional soldiers join 8,400 left behind by President Barack Obama, who inherited the war but didn’t keep his promise to end it, plus about 5,000 troops from NATO allies.
If nearly 16 years have taught us anything, it’s that we cannot bomb ourselves to victory. Diplomacy is essential, and Trump urgently needs to beef up the diplomatic mission in South Asia. Eight months into his presidency, there is still no U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan. Trump didn’t nominate one until last month – John Bass, now the ambassador to Turkey.
While Trump was right to call out neighboring Pakistan – where the Taliban find shelter and have their headquarters – it’s going to take sensitive diplomacy to change our ally’s behavior.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the United States was justified in going to war in Afghanistan, a sanctuary for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. The U.S. force peaked at 100,000 in 2010 and 2011.
But as the years have passed – and especially after Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in 2011 and the Islamic State terror threat emerged elsewhere – the mission has become murkier. While the corrupt Hamid Karzai left office as Afghan president in 2014, the government in Kabul is still weak and its military still needs assistance, despite billions the West has spent on training.
Trump, himself, had repeatedly called for cutting U.S. losses and withdrawing. The “America First” crowd inside the White House has been most skeptical of further deployments, but its leader, Steve Bannon, exited Friday. Those supporting a larger U.S. military presence include the new chief of staff, former Marine Gen. John Kelly, whose son was killed by a landmine in Afghanistan in 2010.
On Afghanistan policy, the former and current generals have won.