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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