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Get A Clue. Trump’s Afghanistan Policy Is Not An About-Face


The negative reactions to President Trump’s new policy on Afghanistan are mystifying. To be sure, many applaud the policy, especially the military, veterans of the war, and national security types who want to see the president focus exclusively on killing those who plot to harm us, wherever these killers are.

But some aren’t applauding, and their criticism seems to fall into three categories.

First, they complain that Trump is sending more troops to Afghanistan “when he said he wanted to get out us of Afghanistan.” Anyone who has been following Trump’s public statements on foreign policy for a while (or knows how to use an Internet search engine) can find that in 2013 he was saying we should get out, but by 2016 and during the campaign he was saying we could not abandon Afghanistan without leaving a vacuum to be filled yet again by terrorists setting up base camps to train and plot more 9/11s.

His position on Afghanistan has been pretty steady since he began his run for the White House. It takes ignorance or willful obfuscation to assert he has flipped since he started listening to generals. In fact, he had been listening to military experts for a good while before he even formed his national security team, and we can be sure this was shaping his thinking for a long time. What also influenced his decision was watching what we all watched: Obama abandoning Iraq only to have the Islamic State take much of the country for its caliphate and use it as a base to attack us and our allies.

Second, critics complain that Trump didn’t enunciate a plan for victory, that he simply ignored the pressing need to tell the public what the end goal is that can be called victory. Further, they argue he has made a choice for never-ending war instead of pursuing an end result that can be labeled victory.

Were they not listening? He was quite clear: our goal is to kill our enemies, period, and that shorn of any larger effort to transform Afghanistan. Yes, he left a little room for the consideration that when the Taliban gets tired of us killing them—hitting them harder every time they threaten or act against us—perhaps they will be interested in a diplomatic settlement. A diplomatic settlement has as its goal not making Afghanistan into Switzerland but a stable country that doesn’t host terror armies that plot against us.

But Trump could not have been clearer about what victory is: it is an ongoing war on those who would kill Americans for as long as they try to kill us. It is not possible to know when they will stop trying to kill us, as this is not a conventional war. It is a guerrilla war where the enemy does not fight openly so much as it plots terror, does hit and run missions, and generally has as its goal to make us stop trying to make them stop killing us.

As for Nation Building

Third, about that nation-building charge: even though the president stated quite clearly, several times, that the United States was not going to nation-build in Afghanistan (or anywhere else), some critics continue to insist his plan is just that, ostensibly because he simply authorized the Pentagon to increase troop levels by some number. This charge stems from Trump Derangement Syndrome. How to accuse a president of nation-building when he not only is emphatic about not doing that but also has authorized nothing that can even remotely count as nation building?

I know what nation building is. I was a member of the Bush 43 administration that did indeed try to help the Afghan people build a state and to some degree come together as a nation. We built infrastructure but also tried to help them build the superstructure of a nation-state. That is, we tried to help them build democracy. Those efforts were failures.

Contrast that with our efforts over the years in Europe, and in many places in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. These met considerable success even if such success was hard won and a long time coming. We supported the ultimate victories of Lech Walesa in Poland, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and Alvaro Uribe in Colombia, who saved his country from narco-terrorists for democracy.

But Afghanistan is another story altogether. Little of the historical, cultural and material advantages these other peoples enjoyed are present in Afghanistan. Afghanistan as a country barely exists. Its culture is not supportive of democratic stability and a prospering free market system. That is due in part to its history of conflict and invasion, but also to the culture of the people there. Their habits of mind, traditions, and tribalism are obstacles to the growth of a free and stable society. One hopes that can change, but one shouldn’t expect it for a very long time.

So Where Do These Realities Leave Us?

So what to do now that terrorists have increased in number and savagery over the last eight years and the hope of transforming societies such as Afghanistan are a luxury we cannot afford since we are in a life and death battle with Islamic fascism? There is only one thing to do, and that Trump has determined to do: kill our enemies wherever they are. Make them spend every moment trying to stay alive rather than plotting and acting against us. When they stop doing the latter, we can stop doing the former.

One other element of the president’s speech is worth mentioning, and that is his frank admission that he had indeed changed his mind about what to do regarding Afghanistan. It is important because it underscores the seriousness with which he faced a national security problem fraught with political implications and over which he agonized for months. The decision did not come easy, but by all indications it was made with great care and took courage.

The president is not given to humility or mea culpas, to say the least. But given the highly political nature of the very serious foreign policy problem of Afghanistan and South Asia in general, I think it is fair to say that he believed a special speech on this issue gaining wide coverage (and it did) was important to explain as much as he could about the way forward. He wanted the country to know that his decision-making was careful, deliberate, not rushed and not simply a political act.

With that decision, he outlined a plan to stay in a hell-hole from which we have been repeatedly attacked and threatened and where more than 20 terrorist organizations have gathered—in order to thwart them. He outlined a plan for the only kind of victory possible in a guerilla war of this nature—to keep killing our enemies until they are no longer willing or able to keep trying to kill us. And he outlined a plan that is a 180-degree turn from trying to do more than the United States can do for any other country, no matter how noble our aspirations.