Of all the tasks that lay before the newly-elected President Donald Trump, the one he probably relished the least was dealing with Afghanistan. On the orders of former President George W. Bush, the U.S. military drove out Al Qaeda and banished the Taliban, but never destroyed them. Bush’s successor dithered for eight years and Trump was handed a failing and directionless mission. His decision on the way forward has been highly anticipated and Monday evening, in a televised address, he finally confronted the need for a new strategy.
The president admitted that his first instinct was withdrawal from Afghanistan. The perspective of a president, however, is not the same as that of a private citizen who lacks both the information and the responsibility. A quick end to America’s engagement in Afghanistan would be the most desirable outcome. As Trump understands, however, there is no good outcome for that nation, should the U.S. military leave too quickly. In turn, a bad outcome for Afghanistan eventually becomes a bad outcome for America. The president did not announce a surge in U.S. forces. Within the hours before Monday’s address, it had been widely reported that he had approved the deployment of an additional 4,000 troops. As is his practice, Trump did not disclose such specifics. Instead, he talked general strategy. “America’s enemies must never know our plans,” he said, “or believe they can wait us out.”
There were three main takeaways from the address delivered in front of an audience of service members at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia. First, the president came closer than either of his two predecessors to defining a clear mission. Most notably, he signaled a turning away from mission creep by announcing “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” Many previous occupants of the White House have believed that America has a duty to mold failing foreign states into something resembling the American ideal. Such aspirations never end well. “[but] we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society,” Trump asserted. Later in the speech, he returned to that same theme. “But we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in far-away lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image.”
The second major shift in policy was a lifting of the highly-restrictive rule of engagement placed upon American troops in Afghanistan by the Obama administration. The military found itself facing off against the Taliban with, not one, but both hands tied behind its back. Trump promised the troops “the necessary tools and rules of engagement to make this strategy work, and work effectively, and work quickly.”
I have already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our war fighters that prevented the secretary of defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy.
By no means, the least significant part of the Trump strategy was a determination to bring more pressure to bear on Afghanistan’s neighbor. No lasting victory over the Taliban can be achieved without the commitment of Pakistan. The Northwestern region of that country has been a Taliban safe-haven for the entire 16 years of the war. “We can no longer be silent,” the president said, “about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.” Suggesting that the flow of American money into Pakistan would be conditional upon that country’s cooperation, Trump is using the leverage that neither Bush nor Obama seemed very willing to use. Pakistan has never before been held accountable for its status as a staging-point for Taliban and Al Qaeda attacks in Afghanistan.
Trump’s address cannot be described as the magic solution that will finally solve America’s Afghan problem. In reality, that country will never achieve true stability. That is, clearly, not the president’s concern, however – nor should it be. In allowing the U.S. military to conduct the war, rather than trying to conduct it himself, the president can create the conditions for the closest thing to victory that we may ever see.
The commitment is still somewhat open-ended, but Trump has defined that commitment as being subject to results, rather than timelines. Additionally, there is no “blank check” for the Afghan government. The mission is now defined, strictly, as protecting American interests.