Here are the essentials of Trump’s Afghanistan policy
◆ US policy toward Afghanistan must be considered as part of an overall regional approach, worked out after a major policy review by the Trump administration’s national security team
- It was striking how little information leaked prior to Trump’s prime-time address. The White House staff was very disciplined, a sharp contrast to previous behavior, when internal opponents advanced their position anonymously in the press.
◆ The US is staying in Afghanistan and recommitted to the fight.
◆ We are not revealing operational details, beyond implying that it will not involve large numbers of US troops
◆ We’re relying ultimately on the Afghans themselves, not on US troops
◆ We’ve rejected the trial balloon of a US mercenary army (implied but not stated explicitly in the speech)
◆ We’ve put Pakistan on notice that their territory cannot be a safe haven for Islamic networks that kill Americans or attack US-supported forces in Afghanistan
- The implication is that Pakistan must deal with these problems or the US will (a dangerous possibility in terms of bilateral relations)
- Trump’s speech clearly positioned the Afghanistan fight as part of a regional strategy for South Asia.
- The outreach to India was part of that and will undoubtedly scare Pakistan, which will be split internally on this and may reach out to China (at great risk)
◆ We are changing our troops’ rules of engagement; instead of tight restraints, the new rule is “kill the bastards”
◆ No more nation building. America’s only goal is security, for the US and US interests (including our allies).
To the extent that anyone speaks of a “Trump doctrine,” it will be:
Kill the bad guys, rely heavily on local partners, hold them accountable, and don’t do nation building.
What outcome does Trump envision, if his policy works?
Trump gave a hint of the end-state he wanted. At this stage, he was wise not to spell it out in more detail.
He wants a political solution. The implication is that the US will not put in enough resources to win unilaterally on the battlefield.
His implicit goal, then, is not only to keep the Taliban (and their Pakistani allies) from winning but to convince them that they cannot simply outlast the US and thus win a war of attrition.
Trump explicitly said the political solution could include some elements of the Taliban, as long as that end-state was stable and would not lead to attacks on the US or US interests. Clearly, he thinks that will be possible only if the Taliban don’t think they cannot win unilaterally, or cannot win at a tolerable cost.
For all Trump’s talk about “winning,” this is really a political compromise, made possible by greater success on the battlefield.
Trump’s initial comments voiced a hope that a divided America could come together, clearly a reference to Charlottesville and its aftermath.
After that, his speech was very much directed at the military men and women in the audience and offered them strong support.
Trump’s comments that he initially wanted to pull out were not so much narcissism (as is usually the case with him) and more an attempt to explain to a war-weary nation why it made sense to recommit to the fight there.
The speech was filled with sharp criticism of the Obama administration’s strategy, without specifically naming Obama.
Hat tip to David Nix for asking about Trump’s vision for an end-state