Trump’s Afghanistan Strategy: No Apologies, No Details, No End

For nearly six years before he was president of the United States of America, Donald Trump desperately wanted the U.S. military to withdraw from Afghanistan. Just like his predecessor President Barack Obama, who promised a surge of 10,000 troops in July 2008 while decrying the Bush administration’s split focus between Iraq and Afghanistan, candidate Trump quickly pivoted to a victory-first line built on “begrudgingly” leaving a troop presence behind.

And just like Obama, Trump is now tasked with delivering the same frustrating message to the American public: The forever war will last at least a bit longer.  

On Aug. 21, the commander-in-chief laid out a new strategy for the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan during a speech at Ft. Myer in Arlington, Virginia. Media outlets had previously reported that Trump planned on authorizing more than 4,000 additional combat troops and military advisers for counterrorism and training operations, but specific troop numbers were absent from Trump’s remarks. The new troops would have brought the total number of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan to more than 12,400, the most in the country in years.

“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts,” Trump said. “But all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”

The U.S. will, in fact, recommit itself to finally achieving some kind of victory in Afghanistan. “In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear: We must stop the re-emergence of safe-havens that enable terrorists to threaten America,” said Trump. “We must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us.”

But that comes with, in Trump’s words, “learn[ing] from history.” And while Trump emphasized that he had learned from the premature withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan that left space for militant groups to flourish, the commander-in-chief delivered an unusual message to the American public: Don’t fear the forever war.

“A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions,” Trump said. “I’ve said many times how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin, or end, military operations.  We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.”

Most surprising was not Trump’s calm, measured delivery of his prepared remarks, but a new round of harsh rhetoric reserved for Pakistan.

“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” Trump said. “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists.”

The new strategy comes amid major turmoil in the White House, including the purge of National Security Council staffers loyal to controversial Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon that culminated with the departure of Bannon himself. The ouster of Bannon and his sphere of influence, orchestrated by National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and newly-installed White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly, neutralized not just the ideological heart of the administration, but one of the lone non-interventionist voices in the administration.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the coterie of current and former generals — Kelly, McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford — have assembled into some sort of governmental Voltron to enforce military discipline. In a tense July 18 meeting, the commander-in-chief lashed out at his chiefs over the DoD’s approach to bringing America’s longest war to an end.

“We aren’t winning,” Trump reportedly snapped at Mattis and Dunford. “We are losing.” (Mattis reportedly left the meeting “visibly upset.”)

It’s unclear whether the departure of Afghanistan dove Bannon — his resignation was effective on Aug. 14 but was tendered as early as Aug. 3, according to reports — is responsible for the sudden coalescence of Trump’s Afghan strategy after weeks of clashes with his troika of Marines and lone soldier. But it appears that the generals are getting exactly what they’ve wanted since the early weeks of the Trump administration: several thousand more troops to bolster Afghan security forces.

“The president has provided his strategic guidance for the South Asia strategy following a rigorous interagency review,” Mattis said in a statement following Trump’s remarks. “I have directed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to make preparations to carry out the president’s strategy. “

It’s unclear whether those additional troops will do the trick. Afghanistan remains scarred by the steady resurgence of Taliban forces and rise of ISIS-K in recent years, prompting an increase of U.S. special operations forces missions against terrorist targets and bombing sorties that culminated with the use of the GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) against ISIS targets in the Nangarhar province.

And an increase in operational tempo comes with casualties. On Aug. 17, a U.S. service member was killed during a joint operation in eastern Afghanistan, the seventh killed in battle against ISIS-K and tenth overall in the country since the beginning of 2017.

Trump, like the American public, likely remains deeply skeptical about adding additional years — and additional fatalities — to the slog that is the U.S. military’s longest war. And while the commander-in-chief may be resolved to continue America’s global war on terror, a glimmer of skepticism remains.

“America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress,” Trump said. “However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check.  The American people expect to see real reforms and real results.”

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