Monday night, President Donald Trump unveiled his long-awaited plan for Afghanistan. Trump admitted his instinct was to withdraw from the war-torn country, where U.S. forces have been fighting since 2001. But when push came to shove, fears that international terrorist groups might once again use Afghanistan as a safe haven to strike America tipped the scales. Trump is now pursuing the same goal as his predecessors: to prevent this from happening. He sold his plan to accomplish this as “a new strategy.” It isn’t.
First, strategies articulate a clear political objective and match means to ends. Trump defined victory as “attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaida, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terrorist attacks against America before they emerge.” He never said how America would achieve this.
Second, strategies connect the application of force with other instruments of national power. Befitting a president who favors military action as a standalone tool and is enthusiastically overseeing the hollowing out of the State Department, Trump focused overwhelmingly on killing our way to victory. This may or may not be what his advisors have in mind, but it is what the president sold to the American people. And history has shown it does not work.
If one strips away all the bombast and bluster, Trump announced a few adjustments to the approach that has been in place for years.
As anticipated, Trump committed to a conditions-based troop presence. He failed to say how many additional troops he would send or what they would do. Most reports suggest another 4,000 are likely to deploy, mainly to advise and assist Afghan forces. Instead, he dwelled on the decision to implement looser rules of engagement so the military could kill more terrorists. The problem with that is more innocent civilians will die too, thereby fueling insurgent support and recruitment.
Although Trump stressed that conditions on the ground would guide the deployment of U.S. troops, he never specified the conditions necessary to bring them home. To the degree Trump defined success, it was as the enemy’s total defeat. The president repeatedly vowed to “win,” which is something no serious analyst believes is possible.
The fact that war will end with a political settlement is one of the few points everyone familiar with the conflict agrees on. Some favor moving as quickly as possible to the negotiating table. Others favor making sufficient gains against the Taliban and imposing costs on its backers in Pakistan in order to negotiate from a position of greater strength. In either case, any military effort must be geared toward creating conditions for reconciliation.
The most Trump could muster was to say that someday perhaps it might be possible to have a settlement with the Taliban. At best, he is reluctant to admit that his aim, like Obama’s, is to fight to the negotiating table. At worst, despite recognizing the need for a diplomatic solution, Trump and his team have not yet developed a political strategy to achieve it.
Another point on which almost everyone agrees is that military gains will be fleeting without increasing the legitimacy of the Afghan government, which is weak, corrupt, riven by political and ethnic rivalries, and unable to deliver social services or create jobs. Trump failed to articulate a plan for dealing with these challenges. Instead, he appeared to conflate even limited efforts to address them with nation building and democracy promotion. The president did issue a veiled warning to the Afghan government that America’s commitment was contingent on reform. Yet, considering he also said U.S. forces would never leave until all terrorists are defeated, this threat rings hollow.
Despite his administration’s efforts to label the speech as a way forward for Afghanistan and South Asia, Trump paid little attention to the region. As anticipated, he promised to get tough with Pakistan, which supports the Taliban. Pakistan does this to shape the future Afghan government and reduce India’s presence and influence in Afghanistan. There are various options available to the United States, but little evidence that coercion on its own will work. The administration also must be prepared for Pakistan, which provides ground and air access into Afghanistan, to punch back. Trump’s decision to link trade policy with calls for India to spend more on economic development in Afghanistan was more unexpected. Delhi already spends billions there. The president may have reinforced Pakistani fears of Indian encirclement in Afghanistan, while simultaneously irritating India by trying to bully it into doing more.
Trump’s instincts were to withdraw, but he now owns the war in Afghanistan. Much remains unknown about his plans for how to prosecute it. Two things are certain. First, unless a troop increase is paired with a well-thought-out political and diplomatic strategy, America will keep spinning its wheels in a country where over 2,400 U.S. troops have already paid the ultimate price. Second, anytime U.S. troops are put in harm’s way they deserve clarity of mission. Trump failed to articulate either Monday night.
Stephen Tankel is an assistant professor at American University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He previously served as a senior adviser for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs at the Defense Department. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenTankel.