On Monday night, President Trump finally announced a strategy for southeast Asia with a specific focus on Afghanistan. There has been a lot of anticipation for what the president would do in the region, especially after a presidential campaign in which he repeatedly called for pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, more or less stating that we have no business being there. This was part of Trump’s “America first” vision for the United States abroad.
After his election, however, Trump gave Defense Secretary Jim Mattis the authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan, indicating he would support a more robust policy in that country than previously thought. On the other hand, there were also indications late last month that the administration was considering a wholesale withdrawal, leaving many wondering what the president planned to do and who had his ear.
But Trump made it clear in his speech Monday night that America was not pulling out of Afghanistan and would continue to engage its military to help the Afghan government fight the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS, and to stabilize the country. Recall that the Taliban has been resurgent in recent years, and currently controls or contests roughly 40 percent of the country, which has remained unchanged for at least the past five months. Some worry these numbers underestimate the Taliban’s control.
The United States currently has approximately 8,500 troops in the country training Afghan security forces and conducting counterterrorism missions. Maintaining the status quo or withdrawing would almost guarantee the Taliban’s ability to surge back into power, reestablishing Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorism. That’s not what Trump has in mind.
It Wasn’t Just about Afghanistan, Either
The president said Monday night in his primetime speech that America will seek an “honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made,” acknowledging that Americans are “weary of war without victory.” Trump then called out the mistakes of the Obama era, most notably the premature withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 that gave up the hard-earned gains produced by the 2007 surge and left a vacuum that ISIS was ready to fill. Trump promised his administration would not make that same mistake in Afghanistan.
But Trump’s speech wasn’t just about Afghanistan. It was framed up as a strategy for all of southeast Asia and the problem of countries acting as safe havens for terrorists. Trump had particularly strong words for Pakistan:
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. service members and officials. It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order and to peace.
The administration sees this as a major change in policy from previous administrations and one it feels the American public desire on a gut level. Why, so the argument goes, should the United States go on supporting and playing nice with a country that sheltered Osama bin Laden and continues to protect Islamist terrorist groups?
No More Announcements of Arbitrary Timetables
So, what about those troop levels? Trump didn’t say. In fact, he specifically rejected the Obama administration’s policy of forecasting its military plans in a given region and setting arbitrary timetables, something Trump brought up throughout his presidential campaign:
A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions. We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities. Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.
This is a welcome change in strategy. Obama never seemed to get that by campaigning on then following through with the specifics of planned troop withdrawals in Iraq, he gave Islamist groups (not to mention Iran) a clear timeline. They knew just how long they needed to hold out before they would have their opportunity to pounce.
However, Obama wasn’t the only target of Trump’s speech. Trump also had Bush-era policies in his crosshairs, specifically singling out what he sees as the mistake of trying to “rebuild countries in our own image instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations,” a jab at neo-conservative promotion of nation building and spreading democracy. While Trump may have changed his position vis-à-vis troop deployment to Afghanistan, he’s staying true to many of the foreign policy principles he espoused during his campaign, including the idea that American interests do not include installing democratic governments abroad.
While Trump was light on specifics about how many more U.S. troops would be sent to Afghanistan, it’s widely acknowledged that it will be somewhere around 4,000 and not reach anywhere close to peak 2010 levels, which were around 100,000. In fact, plans for any kind of Iraq-style surge to stabilize Afghanistan were reportedly not considered during the administration’s strategy review of the past few months. Any additional troops it deploys will remain part of a mission to train, advise, and support, rather than an Iraq-style counterinsurgency campaign.
So will the relatively small increase in troop levels be enough to get the job done? If not, is this the first wave of successive troop surges, despite the administration’s assurances to the contrary?
Trump Leans on the Generals for Strategy
A few final thoughts about Trump’s speech. First, it was one of the more presidential speeches he’s given, in tone and content. The likelihood this evidences a genuine transformation in the president is unlikely, but it’s a welcome change from his usual improvisational style and inflammatory rhetoric. It’s clear that Trump wanted to highlight the deliberative nature of the review process, drawing a stark contrast with the impulsive nature—or at least the appearance of impulsivity—of many of his previous actions.
In his speech Monday night, he said that in the Oval Office you can’t just go based on instinct, and explained why he conducted a lengthy review of America’s Afghanistan strategy. Perhaps Trump is tired of not being taken seriously and recognizes that to be treated with respect he must act respectably.
Second, it seems that in making this decision about Afghanistan, Trump has taken the side of “his generals.” Another such indication is the fact that Trump referred to terrorists like those that targeted Barcelona last week as “thugs and criminals and predators” but refrained from using his previously preferred phrase, “radical Islamic terrorism.” The shift in vocabulary may be a result of Stephen Bannon’s departure and National Security Advisor H.R. McMasters’ increasing influence in crafting the administration’s emerging Afghanistan policy.