If This is Strategy . . .

Strategy is neither more nor less than a map for getting from here to there—a reasonable plan for using what you have to accomplish what you want. President Trump’s August 21 speech, touted as “a new strategy” for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is not a strategy, because it did not even try to show that what it proposes—in fact it proposed nothing concrete—should be expected to achieve anything at all.

The president made zero attempt to connect ends and means. Nor was anything new about his proposal, other than the application of new adjectives to what the U.S. government has been doing in Afghanistan and elsewhere for two generations. The one new element, announcing that henceforth the United States would take India’s side in its multifaceted, existential quarrel with Pakistan, is pregnant with far more trouble than today’s U.S. foreign policy establishment is capable of imagining.

The speech’s substance was Trump’s surrender of his—and of the 2016 electorate’s—point of view on foreign affairs. Trump said that, having been schooled by the foreign policy establishment’s expertise, he now concludes that he and those who voted for him had been wrong. U.S troops would stay in Afghanistan. More would go. But now they would “fight to win.” Win what? How? No attempt to answer. Just empty, swaggering words. They wouldn’t “nation build” but establish the security environment in which the government could do that. These are the very words used to describe the U.S. “strategy” in the Vietnam War, and in the Iraq. It is also what Americans have been saying since they set up Afghanistan’s  government in 2002.

Unlike Obama in Iraq, and unlike what Trump had promised the voters, he pledged to stay in Afghanistan practically forever. But he threatened the Afghan government with leaving unless it played its part. Bush had done the same in Iraq. In the end, it was the Iraqi government that had asked the Americans to leave.

So, just what can we expect the “Trump Strategy” to do, for how long, and with what results? Because our establishment does not know how to do anything other than what it has been doing, more of the same is the best that any reasonable person, of any political persuasion may expect.

The U.S. formula is inflexible: set up a centralized government comprising as much of the political opposition as possible, and “secure” the country on its behalf by promoting “social programs.” The government’s opponents are America’s enemies.

This formula is especially surreal in Afghanistan. The Taliban are ethnic Pashtun, tied politically as well as ethnically to Pakistan. Their dalliance with Afghan Arabs such as Osama bin Laden ended when Pakistan’s president, General Pervez Musharraf, pulled the string on them in 2001, and the United States helped the Northern Alliance of Tajiks and Uzbeks to defeat them. But then we set up a centralized government that was mostly Pashtun but excluded the remnant Taliban, while disarming the Tajiks and Uzbeks. This application of the standard U.S formula started a civil war among the Pashtun, with the other groups trying to take care of themselves as best they could by providing mercenaries to either side, but certainly not helping the Americans. Add to this the massive corruption engendered by billions of U.S. dollars, and we get a political disaster for America.

It is disheartening to read how few on the Right or Left address the strategic question: what, precisely are we doing that will reasonably achieve what?

By far the most worrisome aspect of the speech that came forth from Mr. McMaster’s McMansion is the promise of alignment with India against Pakistan. The U.S. government has countless good reasons to put pressure on Pakistan regarding matters of interest to America. But the India-Pakistan quarrel touches a thousand items, 999 of which are irrelevant to America. Not only does preemptive engagement in them misdirect us, it also pushes Pakistan—by far the weaker of the contenders—to find another source of great-power support. Alas for all of us, one is readily available: China.

We may well find that the Trump generals’ lasting legacy will have been to bring China to the Indian Ocean’s shores. In sum, these tough-looking, tough-talking professionals give us reason to  regard them as sorcerers’ apprentices.

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About Angelo Codevilla

Angelo M. Codevilla was a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He was professor of international relations at Boston University and the author of several books including To Make And Keep Peace (Hoover Institution Press, 2014).

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30 responses to “If This is Strategy . . .”

  1. I love when the pundits who are not “in the know” and have no business being briefed on any strategy, get all huffy because they feel left out….
    And any leftist from Boston has no clue as to how any peace is to be won. We have been listening to leftists for the last eight years and all we have is a degraded military full of cross dressers.

    • Professor Codevilla is not a Leftist. Your ad hominem fails even by the low standards that apply to such irrelevant efforts.

    • Your ignorance of basic facts is impressive. You are the Poster Boy Trump Voter.

  2. Trump is in real danger of losing his last real support….Us. This is not the Trump we voted for!

  3. You need to pay attention Angelo, and stop running off half-cocked. If you had been listening you would have heard that victory is (by definition) DENYING the other side victory on the battlefield. That’s one aspect of victory – as defined by the Armed Forces. We will deny them that, and hopefully eventually they will come to the negotiating table.

    Another essential aspect is (as Greg Gutfield so cleverly put it) having a close and convenient place to stake out the REAL danger – which is the risk of Pakistan ISIL sharing nukes with terrorists.

    Finally, with over 20 terrorist organizations in the immediate vicinity, we can be sure there will be lots of targeted terrorist killing.

    What, you’d rather we sit at home and wait for them to come with a nuclear 9/11? Does that seem “strategic” to you?

    If you want to know what type of “victory” this will be, it will be one where political interference is at a minimum and the terms of engagement are no longer restrained. You might do well to read the following article:

    • That’s an article from June, 2010.
      That same author has a different opinion as of August, 2017:
      “How the Trump Administration is Losing Afghanistan.”
      PRESIDENT TRUMP does leave himself open to plenty of criticism without specifying any details.
      But, he uses this strategy all the time.
      Never broadcast any tactics or strategy to your enemy.

    • What you’re describing as”victory” is just a continuation of an endless war of attrition where “hopefully eventually” the enemy will come to the bargaining table–in the least likely country on earth. As strategies go, that’s beneath wishful thinking.

  4. Angelo, I love you to death, but on this you’re wrong. This was a speech, not a strategic briefing.

  5. I sometimes disagree with Angelo but not this time. What the F is the US doing in Afghanistan in the first place? G.W. Bush went in there in the first place to make it look like we were somehow getting back at somebody for the 9/11 attacks. Never mind that the attackers were already dead. At least GWB initially “fought” the war mostly with cash and airstrikes. There is no way the US – or anybody else – can “win” in Afghanistan. The country is completely landlocked and the only way in by land is through the Khyber Pass, which is often closed in winter. Donald Trump was elected by voters who believed him. But he surrounded himself with generals who, as anyone who has been in the military, are the biggest politicians of all.

    • In answer to your question “What the F is the US doing in Afghanistan in the first place, This is the answer:
      “War is a mere continuation of policy by other means.
      We see, therefore, that war is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.”
      ————– Carl von Clausewitz, “On War” (Vom Krieg), 1832.

      For more, see the YouTube video I included in my reply to RJ above.

  6. I’m not sure it was as bad as all that, but I too have a hard time seeing what victory looks like. The Afghani’s are history’s hard heads. They couldn’t be defeated by Alexander the Great, Queen Victoria’s British Empire nor the Soviet Union. And quite honestly, we don’t seem to be doing much better.

  7. it seems a lot of people want to see ISIS take over afghanistan. i’m sure that will keep our troops out of war.

  8. Trump is a bred businessman who presently lives in a political world as the Executive leader and Commander in Chief. When looking at all the deals he has made over the many years one should conclude he has learned much. Back stabbing is nothing new to Donald Trump, nor is breaking deals. He even knows how to use bankruptcy laws as a tool in business.

    Assume he has made a deal with regular political types in Washington, DC on Afghanistan. Do you think he has abandoned his instincts honed from his business world? Do you think he takes his eyes off the ball when it comes to “profit” as a goal?

    So, the question one should be asking is: How can the United States profit from this new game plan you’ve decided to put in place relative to Afghanistan? Where’s the profit and what will it look like? How do you intend to measure this profit?

    Presently, Trump is hiding these answers because no one is asking the right questions of him.

    • “War is a mere continuation of policy by other means.
      We see, therefore, that war is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.”
      ————– Carl von Clausewitz, “On War” (Vom Krieg), 1832.


    • As per statements above, if you were to ask ‘the right questions’ they would not be answered. The President IS an exceptional – noun AND verb – Commander In Chief.

    • Trump is doing the opposite of what he promised when campaigning for votes. That is called lying. Even in the business world.

  9. Angelo was a nevertrumper before he showed up here, and he seems to me to be an ever present wobbly. We all like Angelo’s common-sense and knowledge he shows in his books, but his elitism streak showed during the campaign which revealed a real flaw in his character, which seems to trump his common-sense and knowledge often.

  10. We still don’t know what “winning” in Afghanistan would look like. We do know what losing part of the American Greatness agenda looked like, and it was revealed to us in President Trump’s address to the nation. He had resisted the neocons and liberal interventionists in Syria but buckled here. Perhaps the full-blown coup that has been ongoing since November 8 isn’t necessary if the corrupt Administrative State can achieve policy coups here and there. The likelihood is Trump cannot placate the rabid wolves with infrequent bones, though. As Commander in Chief, he should take back this bone. Total withdrawal with a nuclear strike if Afghanistan becomes more of a terror state would be the only semblance of a victory.

    Sharp piece.

    • You’re missing the point. The great game has to be played, yes. But the great game doesn’t have to be played by us. Pass our hand to India and let them play it. They can sustain efforts in the region easier than we can. And no one will bother them about human rights. Getting India to serve as a proxy is quite a coup in my opinion.

  11. This isn’t really a critique to Trump’s strategy for Afghanistan. Simply asserting that it isn’t a strategy isn’t a critique, it is just throwing mud.

  12. Candidate Trump was right; POTUS Trump, having listened to “his” generals, is wrong. Unless the extra troops to be sent to Afghanistan are supermen, what will they do that hasn’t been tried and failed in the last 16 years? The problem is not with “nation-building.” The problem is with the idea of “limited war.” These are the kind of wars that, to its vast cost and harm, America has waged since the end of WW2. US war aims in Korea, in Viet Nam, in Iraq and in Afghanistan have been to make some kind of political point with our soldiers’ lives and our public treasure, so that the politicians can make some kind of deal after enough enemy blood has been spilled.

    This is foolish. Our politicians and military seem oblivious to the lessons taught by two of America’s greatest warriors. General Sherman said “War is all hell.” General Douglas MacArthur said “War’s very object is victory, not prolonged indecision. In war there is no substitute for victory.” If at the start or during a crisis where a military solution is considered, if the outcome cannot be conceived of as a prostrate enemy, with his cities in rubble, his population spent, his productive capacity exhausted, then the crisis ought not be “solved” militarily or should be ended speedily with, one hopes, lessons learned to ignore the siren-song of a simple military solution. Having weapons too often leads their possessor to look for places to use them as the first response to a crisis.

  13. I’m not saying it’s true, but it’s possible:maybe Trump didn’t put his whole plan out there for the enemy to see.

    • I, for one, am quite happy he didn’t tell the enemy what we are going to do.

    • Trump supporters have an unlimited ability to imagine his blunders are really guile. I would have thought the limit would be imagining some element of surprise in a war that’s lasted for 15 years.

  14. China is already on the Indian Ocean’s shores. The port they built at Gwadar, Pakistan must have escaped the author’s notice. Ditto the joint Pakistani-Chinese JF-17 fighter, whose performance is comparable to early F-16Cs. Need I mention that Pakistan knowingly harbored Bin Laden for years?

    The strategic case for engagement with Pakistan is one that needs to be made, because it isn’t obvious on its face. If they cannot control their Wild West frontier, and it is likely that they cannot, what value do they bring to the table? It’s certainly worth trying to make them responsible, with the India relationship as a potential threat that is also a useful thing to pursue anyway.

    This doesn’t mean that the USA needs to be active on India’s side. But spending more time working with a more useful general ally makes sense. Will it move Pakistan? Don’t know. Worth trying.

  15. The only standpoint from which Trump’s “strategy” makes any sense is the ability to minimize terror attacks by denying terrorists save havens. Aside from the bluster about “victory,” Trump is probably signing on to a war of indefinite length in Afghanistan–part of the wider war against terrorism which promises to extend indefinitely. By not conceding defeat in Afghanistan now, Trump is at least keeping our (few) options open for a few more years.

  16. Trump mentioned in his speech his gut, which is nearly always right, was to get out of Afghanistan. Interpret this as 1776-Western-Enlightenment thinking… and the US must either go big or go home. Instead, Trump listened to failed generals and the room of military folk received the speech correctly… like this was a morgue and the mortician was explaining how dead bodies don’t breathe or walk. The subject was failure, and all in the room knew this beast better than the speaker.

    What was the elephant-in-the-room subject not spoken? It is that America has decided to re-embrace 1776-Western-Enlightenment as “This is who we are, and this is what we do.” This means 911 folk (Tribal Death Cults) lose in any fight against 1776’ers. But most importantly, the main fight is against the 1984 folk, the Borg Queens and Drone Slaves who are headquartered in New York City, D.C., Chicago, Boston, L.A., San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.

    The biggest, baddest, most epic battle for all alive today, is to first get the 911 folk out of the way, and enable the 1776 folk to have victory against the enslaving 1984 folk of New York City et al. Our military is 1776. Our news is 1984. Our biggest cities are 1984. Trump could begin an immediate move to victory by defunding 1984 Ed and replacing it with 1776 in K-12, university and grad schools.

    On 9/11, Terrorism, Solution, Absolution and Re-Constitution

  17. “Strategy is neither more nor less than a map for getting from here to there—a reasonable plan for using what you have to accomplish what you want.”

    No, it’s not, and it’s really surprising to see such a fundamental error.

    strategy, ˈnoun: a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim

    The issue is what tactics will be employed to achieve the goal of ensuring Afghanistan doesn’t become a breeding ground or haven for terrorists.

  18. “Strategy is . . . getting from here to there”?


    “Strategy is getting from there to here.”

    “Tactics is getting from here to there.”

  19. President Trump would be wise to keep a very close eye on Pakistan; do not trust them since Paki trains and harbors terrorists who would be more than willing to utterly destroy the West, especially America.
    They must be watch and monitored very closely.