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The trouble with the new (or, rather, not-so-new) Trump Administration war plan for Afghanistan is that it’s a loser. Sure, the president gets high marks for finally talking about “victory” in Afghanistan—after 17 years of seemingly endless warfare, it’s nice to hear the word mentioned. Yet, for all of the talk of victory, the president offered nothing new, at least strategically, that would achieve that goal.
Angelo Codevilla has also argued that we got nothing new from Trump on Afghanistan. At a tactical level, the president made much sense: we would no longer have the onerous rules of engagement that have prevented our gallant troops from fully bringing the hurt to our enemies. Battlefield commanders, not politicians in Washington, would have near-complete autonomy over the day-to-day course of the war. This is a refreshing change from the previous administration, which squandered Americans’ time, money, and lives in Afghanistan fighting simply to hold on, rather than win or withdraw. The restraining tactics of the Obama years were perfectly suited to a strategy of stalemate.
But do improved and sensible tactics automatically suggest a more sensible strategy? What is our strategy?
The best President Trump gave us was that “conditions on the ground,” rather than arbitrary time tables, would dictate the course of the war. Although sound policy, that remains a tactical rather than strategic consideration. And, really, this rhetoric sounds eerily reminiscent of George W. Bush and his “low energy” brother, Jeb!
To be clear, I am not an outright opponent of the plan, but I am a skeptic. For instance, supporters of the president’s plan argue that this rehash of the old plan is exactly what the president promised during the campaign. “Right now,” F. H. Buckley argues, “the principal breeding ground of Islamic jihadism is Afghanistan, not Syria, and Trump correctly concluded that the very best way to prevent another 9/11 is to continue the fight in that country. It’s just what he promised on the campaign trail.”
Respectfully, no, it is not.
First, people like myself supported what was once referred to as the “Counterterrorism-Plus” strategy advanced by that broken clock and former Vice President Joe Biden. This plan called for focusing on the counterterrorism, rather than on the counterinsurgency aspects of the war. Right now, President Trump’s plan sounds dreadfully similar to our current counterinsurgency effort—sending more forces (around 4,000 troops) to win the fickle hearts and minds of the Afghan people, thereby denying insurgents, such as the Taliban or al-Qaeda, recruits. This plan has never worked in Afghanistan. So, whether it’s 4,000 or 40,000 more troops, it’s still a bad plan. Some hearts can’t be won.
Second, although it’s true Afghanistan is a front in the “Global War on Terror,” the geography, political system, and historical realities of the country make a massive invasion with conventional forces primed for “bolstering” the unpopular local government a waste of time. As Peter Tomsen has shown, the true path to political stability in Afghanistan lies not in Kabul, but with the local tribes—and they generally want foreigners to leave them alone. The larger our presence is, the more the locals will turn against us. It’s just that simple.
The military keeps arguing that larger troop numbers will “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghans. Yet, when America had nearly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, it did little to persuade the bulk of the population to support our cause. What makes the president think that 15,000 troops total would make a difference now?
Fact is, the real fight is not Afghanistan, which remains only partially controlled by the Islamist Taliban (and where both the foreign al-Qaeda and ISIS elements are not as popular as their propaganda would have you believe), but in the Levant. What’s more, the war is actually shifting away from the Mideast, and toward Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines. What are we doing to counter the rise of jihadists in Asia? We’re sending special forces, which is the proper way to fight terrorism.
Third, there is no upper limit to the troop surge. This is potentially Vietnam redux. In Vietnam, America’s leaders didn’t fight to win. They fought merely to preserve the government of South Vietnam. That was not a sound strategy. The United States spent a decade, and deployed hundreds of thousands of its brave young men—while dropping more ordnance on Vietnam than we dropped on Europe during World War II—to no effect. The Communists still enjoyed a political victory. Under current plans for Afghanistan, we’ll likely keep sending more troops, and the insurgents will keep resisting. Just like Vietnam. Get the picture?
Fourth, the president has laughably demanded that NATO forces “step up to the plate” in Afghanistan. Sure, after 17 years of not stepping up to the plate (in some cases, not even taking the field), presidential shaming will draw the hapless Germans and the recalcitrant French into the fight. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump rightly pointed out the systemic flaws of NATO. Now, he seems to have thrown those views out with his erstwhile strategic adviser, Steve Bannon.
One of the many reasons many of us supported Trump over his more conventional political opponents was precisely because he spent the entire campaign attacking ignorant bromides (such as “the ultimate weapon in war is no weapon”) perpetuated by a self-indulgent political elite. Trump supporters, like myself, refused to support a political elite that seeks to convert our military into little more than armed humanitarians any longer. We wanted a turnaround.
I thought the president, being an astute businessman, would not write blank checks. Yet, like it or not, that’s what he just did in Afghanistan. Trump supporters wanted the president to call in America’s chips, cash us out, and move on from that notorious “graveyard of empires.” Although, it’s fair to say that President Trump has an uncanny ability to shock his detractors with success by going big, this is Afghanistan, not Atlantic City. To the Afghans, America looks more like that foolish gambling addict so desperate to win against a stacked deck that he’s willing to bet his kid’s college funds to “get lucky” on the next hand. In Afghanistan, as in any casino, we should remember that the odds are always with the house. Nation-building and counterinsurgency do not work over there.
Is it really possible that Trump (or any modern Western leader) could succeed where Alexander the Great failed? Records may be meant to be broken, but there is such a thing as the “sunk cost fallacy.” Let’s break this cycle and not make the mistakes of previous great powers in Afghanistan. Let’s come home.
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