As he committed America and its allies to years more of war in Afghanistan, Donald Trump made a stark confession Monday.
“My original instinct was to pull out,” the U.S. president said in a televised speech. “And I historically like following my instincts.”
This time, however, he didn’t. Too bad. The war in Afghanistan has gone on for 16 years. It could easily go on for 16 more. To all intents and purposes, it is unwinnable.
His occasional bursts of bravado notwithstanding, Trump seemed to recognize that Monday.
“We will fight to win,” he said at one point. But at another, he defined winning in the very broadest of terms. Victory, he said, did not necessarily entail defeating the Taliban insurgents outright. Rather, it meant preventing them from taking power unilaterally.
Indeed, he dangled the prospect of a “political settlement” in Afghanistan that could eventually include “elements” of the Taliban.
Trump insists that his strategy for war in Afghanistan is brand new. With a few exceptions, it is not.
Like former U.S. president Barack Obama, Trump hopes to leave the bulk of the fighting to Afghan government forces, with American troops focusing on training and anti-terrorist operations.
Like Obama, he hopes that military pressure will drive the Taliban to the bargaining table.
“Military power alone will not bring peace,” Trump said. “But strategically applied force aims to create the conditions for a political process to achieve a lasting peace.”
It’s a nice theory. But it didn’t work for Obama and there’s no reason to think it will work for Trump.
Non-stop war in Afghanistan has not created the conditions for a lasting peace. Rather, it has created the conditions for more war.
Like Obama, Trump is justly critical of the double-game played by Pakistan, a nominal U.S. ally that at the same time gives sanctuary to Taliban fighters.
Obama authorized drone strikes against targets in Pakistan. We shall see what Trump does.
One element of the Trump strategy that is different is his call on Pakistan’s archrival India to involve itself more in Afghanistan’s affairs. Other than infuriating Pakistan and unsettling China, it is not clear what this is intended to accomplish.
Another novel element is Trump’s decision to keep secret the number of U.S. troops operating in Afghanistan. He says his aim is to deny useful intelligence to the enemy. But hiding the numbers also offers political cover to Trump if he decides to gradually escalate the war.
Trump is also dropping any pretense that America is concerned with democracy and civil right in Afghanistan. Previous administrations may have highlighted, say, the number of girls attending school since the Taliban was ousted. Trump doesn’t care.
As he said Monday, his aim is not to encourage Afghanistan to become like the U.S. Rather it is to co-operate in shared security interests.
It is a realpolitik view of the world that hasn’t been so baldly articulated since Richard Nixon was president.
Like Nixon with Vietnam, Trump inherited a war going badly. Nixon kept the Vietnam War alive in a futile effort to achieve what he called “peace with honour.” Trump is extending the Afghan war in the hope of achieving “an honourable and enduring outcome.”
It’s a strategy that didn’t work for Nixon and almost certainly won’t work for Trump.
Finally, Trump would have NATO play a bigger military role in Afghanistan. With the exception of Canada and France, all NATO countries already have a military presence in Afghanistan, usually involving training. The alliance has said it is willing to expand the 13,500-person force by an unspecified number, with at least 15 countries upping their commitment.
So far, Canada isn’t one of them. “There are absolutely no plans to send any troops back to Afghanistan,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in late June. With luck, Trump’s new-found commitment to the Afghan war won’t change that calculation.
Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.