I wanted to comment on President Donald Trump’s speech announcing his policy toward U.S. involvement in Afghanistan on Monday night. I was able to watch his speech and read the transcript today, so I thought I would offer some of my initial thoughts.
For starters an admission, I have mixed feelings about Afghanistan and would harbor these feelings regardless of who occupied the Oval Office.
On the one hand, while I am not a neocon, I’m also not an isolationist. I don’t agree with the position “if we only leave them alone they would leave us alone.” That position perhaps could work if we could go back in time and undo decades of U.S. involvement in the region, but we can’t. We can only deal with what is here and now. This doesn’t mean we have to be the policeman of the world, we shouldn’t, but I think we were justified in going in Afghanistan in 2001.
On the other hand, we have had a military presence in Afghanistan for almost 16 years, and historically no one has had success in Afghanistan. I’m not convinced we’ll ever see tangible success in the region, not because of the effectiveness of our military, but because of the complexity of the region and the nature of the fight there.
Here are five points of agreement.
1. It is positive that President Trump listened to his advisors and changed his mind.
President Donald Trump said he wanted to pull troops out of Afghanistan, but changed his mind. It’s one thing to say things while you are on the campaign trail, and then quite another to have the weight of governance on your shoulders.
While we may question how much President Trump listens to his advisors with other matters on this issue it does appear that he listened to his military leaders. Regarding military advice, no one can credibly argue that he has not surrounded himself with some of the best minds on the subject.
2. President Trump is right, the results of pulling out of Afghanistan are predictable.
All one has to do is look at Iraq. Heck, all one has to do is look at Afghanistan before 2001. Nature abhors a vacuum, and that is what Afghanistan will become should we pull out. We don’t need another failed state where terrorists flock. We also don’t want to set up a scenario where a rapid departure will just lead to us having to return to the region later on.
3. Broadcasting time tables is stupid.
“We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities,” President Trump said. I’m certain that won’t make the press happy, but as President Trump has demonstrated that is not a primary concern. Having been in the military I always thought the idea of announcing when we were leaving was incredibly stupid.
This is a good policy provided the military does have benchmarks and the mission is clear.
4. The military’s strength has never been nation-building.
The two things the United States Military excels at are breaking things and killing people. That is what was designed to do, that is what they train to do, and that is what they excel at. Nation-building is not something they excel at.
The less involvement the United States has in Afghani governance the better. President Trump said, “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”
That is refreshing to hear and perhaps can help to refocus our military’s objectives there.
The rules of engagement need to change, but we also have to recognize that we don’t want our military’s action to be a recruiting tool for ISIS. We have to be judicious in our use of force, but not to the point it puts our troops in jeopardy and makes them less effective. What’s the balance? I’m not sure I know the answer to that, and fortunately, no one is asking me. I do know asking the military to stay and then handcuffing them so they can’t do their job is both frustrating and it hurts morale.
Another thing President Trump said, “Another fundamental pillar of our new strategy is the integration of all instruments of American power — diplomatic, economic, and military — toward a successful outcome.”
I do wonder how that is different than President George W. Bush’s approach? How will diplomatic and economic tools be used differently? Is he talking in Afghanistan or with our allies in the region? We’ll have to see how that plays out because we have been given few details.
5. President Trump is absolutely right about Pakistan.
Pakistan can more aptly be described as a “frienemy.” Its leadership is not unified. We do have allies in Pakistan who want to support our efforts and who do not support terrorism. We also have enemies that walk the streets of Islamabad and operate within the government. Pakistan’s ISI supports the Taliban. They have harbored terrorists. It is a country that has the radical Islamic element only being held in check by a strong military.
Pakistan needs to step up, and President Trump is correct in pointing that out. I know some would like to withdraw all aid from Pakistan, but I have to wonder how much of that aid helps with their nuclear security. The military losing control of their nukes to radical elements is a nightmare scenario and one which likely fuels much of the military aid.
Afghanistan is a mess. Leaving right now will make it worse, that is just a fact. President Obama didn’t do our military any favors in that regard. President Trump has a big challenge ahead not only making a course correction in Afghanistan, with Congressional support, but to convince a war-weary nation that it is the right direction to go.