“I share the American people’s frustration” with nearly two decades of “a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money, and most importantly, lives trying to rebuild countries in our own image instead of pursuing our security interests,” President Trump said as he began to get to the meat of his Afghanistan strategy speech Monday night.
He then announced his intention to prolong exactly that foreign policy of frustration—indefinitely. This plan is a betrayal of the best of Trump’s campaign-era skepticism of post-9/11 foreign policy. It is a deep plunge into the swamp of imprudent interventionism he once critiqued. It is, above all, a pledge to double down on the bipartisan failures of the last decade and half, making changes only for the worse.
Wrong on All Three Main Counts
Trump’s speech listed three conclusions he has reached about Afghanistan, and it is worth examining each in turn.
The first, he said, is that we “must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made” by U.S. troops on Afghan soil. The appeal of this sentiment is understandable, but it is also fallacious, precisely the sort of comforting untruth Trump insists he eschews. We will not honor lives lost in Afghanistan by extending a costly and often counterproductive intervention that does not contribute to American security. We will not justify sacrifices past by sending new generations of Americans to lose their lives in pursuit of an unobtainable goal.
Trump’s second conclusion is that a “hasty exit”—as if ending our country’s longest war at the 16-year mark could ever fairly be labeled “hasty”—will plummet Afghanistan into terrorist-ridden chaos. The reality, of course, is that Afghanistan is already in terrorist-ridden chaos, and 16 years of American military intervention, often a far grander scale than Trump now envisions, have utterly failed to fix it.
Today, Afghanistan is plagued with corrupt and dysfunctional institutions, an oft-ignored refugee crisis, widespread and growing Taliban control of up to 90 percent of the countryside, and an influx of Islamic State activity. The purchase of tens of thousands of U.S. and Afghan lives and trillions of tax dollars—including real-dollar nation-building expenditures in excess of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt post-war Europe—is continued turmoil and terrorism.
An American exit may well create a power vacuum in Afghanistan, as it did in Iraq. Trump is right on that fact but not in his analysis. The root problem in Iraq (as in Libya, another conflict of which Trump has been correctly critical) was not U.S. withdrawal but rather U.S. intervention: As even former President George W. Bush has noted with regret, our foreign policy missteps abetted ISIS’ rise.
There Is No Such Thing as Victory in Afghanistan
A post-U.S. Afghanistan would unquestionably have terrorist activity, as security expert Barry Posen concedes in a persuasive case at The Atlantic for “making Afghanistan someone else’s problem.” “America has been on the offense for nearly 16 years in Afghanistan and elsewhere and victory remains elusive,” Posen writes. What will be true of Afghanistan after American withdrawal is presently true of Afghanistan under U.S. occupation—and Trump’s criteria for exit as formulated Monday seek an implausible if not impossible end.
In Afghanistan, Trump said, the United States is “killing terrorists” and “will never let up until [they] are dealt a lasting defeat.” This is functionally a guarantee of forever war, a promise that the United States will endlessly pour out blood and treasure attempting to bomb an ideology out of human hearts. In setting this goal, Trump evinces a failure, to borrow the phrase of military historian Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich, “to distinguish what the U.S. military can do, what it cannot do, what it need not do, and what it should not do.”
The president’s third conclusion is “that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense” and that it is in the interests of the United States to root out all terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and surrounding areas. This is, again, a wildly unrealistic project, but it is also not nearly as protective of U.S. interests as Trump suggests.
This is so on three counts. First, as Bacevich notes, “U.S. forces [are] more or less permanently engaged in ongoing hostilities,” an interventionist roundabout in which “[n]othing really ends” and troops remain deployed without honest assessment of their mission’s progress or lack thereof.
The second problem with Trump’s definition of American obligations in Afghanistan is that U.S. military action too often comes with unintended, detrimental consequences. Independent investigations as well as U.S. military and intelligence officials have long warned that reckless counter-terror measures can creature more terrorists than they eliminate, radicalizing ordinary people who otherwise may have been sympathetic to the American cause. Pause and consider that some of the people the U.S. targets in Afghanistan today were toddlers on 9/11.
New would-be attackers contribute to the third count, which is that targeting terrorist strongholds in the Mideast has at best an indirect and at worst an exacerbating effect on domestic terror attacks like the recent vehicle rampage in Barcelona Trump referenced in his speech. It has been evident for some time now that as ISIS loses territory, it responds by ramping up attacks overseas, both via direct coordination with terror cells and in the form of uncoordinated, lone-wolf attacks that proceed without regard for the fortunes of ISIS proper.
This means is that even if there were vital U.S. national interests at stake here—and to be clear, there are not—Trump’s plan for escalation is not a step toward safety.
Nation-Building Is Nation-Building No Matter Its Label
After his three conclusions, Trump turned to his plans for regional relationships and tactical adjustments. In Afghanistan, Trump said, the U.S. is “not nation building,” merely “participat[ing] in economic development” and “assistance.” We are not “asking others to change their way of life,” he claimed, merely demanding they begin to “pursue common goals that allow our children to live better and safer lives.” It’s potayto, not potahto.
The commonality between Trump’s Monday speech and the Afghanistan policies and statements of former presidents Bush and Barack Obama is worth a moment’s mention. The surge has been done before—more than once. Like Bush, Trump rejects deadlines. Like Obama, he wants to put pressure on Pakistan and claims to oppose nation-building.
Indeed, Trump echoed many of Obama’s exact turns of phrase, cribbing from his first-year Afghanistan speech promises of a “clearly defined” mission that would refuse to provide a “blank check” in denying “safe haven” to terrorists. The promises are even less convincing now than they were eight years ago.
Early in his speech, Trump observed that “the American people are weary of war without victory,” a darkly incongruous preface to his announcement of a plan that will increase that very weariness. Perhaps some of the fault in Trump’s proposal stems from this shallow diagnosis based in a reality-TV metric of wins and losses. The American people are weary of an imprudent foreign policy that goes abroad seeking “monsters to destroy,” that plays a futile and dangerous game of world police, that ignores much-needed constitutional limits. After 16 years, we are weary of war.