Donald Trump’s recent address to the nation portends several more years of our soldiers inconclusively slogging through the hills of Afghanistan. While the speech was mature, presidential, and appropriately patriotic, it was an about face from the message of Trump the candidate, and a worrisome sign for those who supported his stated nationalist agenda. One of the key components of that agenda was a more minimalist foreign policy.
Trump the candidate (and private citizen) expressed skepticism of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Regarding the former, he tweeted “Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home!” and “We should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives. If we have to go back in, we go in hard & quick. Rebuild the US first.” Indeed, he later expressed appropriate skepticism of our failed interventions in Libya and Syria. Like a great many Americans, he noticed that those in power could not really answer the most fundamental question: “How does any of this activity make us safer?”
Personnel is Policy
The swift movement toward standard-issue policy originates in Trump’s hiring. Trump the president has not hired people based on a shared philosophical outlook. Some were rich friends, others competent technocrats, and still others were loyal blood relations. Missing were the nationalists, particularly in the State Department and the Department of Defense. It may be objected that there are few who fit the bill and also have minimal qualifications, but a short list that comes to mind is Professor Andrew Bacevich, military theorist William Lind, and retired officer Daniel Davis.
Even with the paucity of committed fellow travelers, one high profile exception to this was Steve Bannon, whose exit deprives the president of the intellectual ammunition to withstand the blandishments and persuasive power of defense chiefs. Bannon’s departure appears part of a concerted effort to restrict the available information and options presented to President Trump. On Friday, the other prominent nationalist in the administration, Sebastian Gorka, also departed. Trump’s instinctual aversion to foreign policy entanglements will now be blunted by the heavy psychic and reputational cost of rejecting expert advice, the range of which has now been narrowed significantly to include primarily interventionist and globalist voices.
I have admired Defense Secretary James Mattis and his career from afar and have great respect for him and his intellect. H. R. McMaster has also shown an appropriately broad view for someone with the heavy burden of being national security advisor. Nonetheless, little in their public rhetoric on strategy suggests alignment with Trump’s earlier-expressed nationalist agenda.
Today we are an empire in all but name, with troops in Japan, South Korea, Georgia, Poland, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Africa too, all in service of elusive “stability.” While masters of the operational art and skeptics of Obama’s social engineering of the military, Trump’s advisors have habits of interventionism borne from long-standing commitment to maintaining a “unipolar world.”
A great many talented generals have tried and failed to create an enduring peace in Afghanistan since the United States first intervened following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Afghanistan was, of course, an obvious and uncontroversial target in the aftermath of the attacks, which were conceived by and planned by Afghanistan’s al-Qaeda guests. But the main effort against al-Qaeda and its terrorist infrastructure ended quickly. Many ran across the border to Pakistan, or migrated to Iraq, or otherwise were rendered ineffective. Osama bin Laden, recall, was living in a safe house hundreds of miles away in Pakistan.
So What is the Strategy?
What persisted in Afghanistan was a war against a broad coalition of anti-western insurgents, including Afghanistan’s Taliban. These are extremists no doubt, but their ability to do much beyond Afghanistan remains limited. Turning what was a backwards, anarchic, and warring nation into a responsible and functioning member of the international community appears beyond our grasp, and well beyond the resources America has been willing to commit to the theater.
The whole idea that we must invade, occupy, democratize, and police Muslim lands because of terrorist attacks is akin to the 1960s view that crime could only be fought with extensive anti-poverty efforts. In reality, cops, jails, and gated communities in the suburbs did most of the trick. As with crime, the most cost-effective means of addressing certain foreign problems is not to attack “root causes”—a technique that is both expensive and utopian—but instead to address symptoms as they appear. More cops and longer prison sentences did more to combat crime than “urban renewal” ever did.
As with crime, the most cost-effective means of addressing certain foreign problems is not to attack “root causes”—a technique that is both expensive and utopian—but instead to address symptoms as they appear.
In the case of terrorists, this would mean letting these countries fester, monitoring with our intelligence agencies, bombing training camps and nation-state sponsors of terrorism vigorously as they reveal themselves, and, most importantly, keeping them out through solid borders and severe restrictions on immigration and travel. This approach certainly beats the Bush-Obama policy of decades-long occupations of the world’s hell holes with very little to show for it.
Conservative critics draw the wrong lesson from our withdrawal from Iraq. After toppling Saddam, little good came from our occupation of Iraq, whose insurgency was fueled by the appeal of anti-American jihadism. ISIS, it is true, did briefly threaten the post-American Iraqi state. But ISIS, like al-Qaeda, is simply an iteration of a larger, less easily solved problem: Islamic extremism. If there were no ISIS or al-Qaeda, some other organization would channel this energy. And ISIS also grew from our wrong-headed policy of attempting to depose a secular strongman—Bashar al-Assad—who, while imperfect, is preferable to either civil war or an Islamic extremist regime.
Trump understood as a candidate that the most effective anti-terrorist tools are often defensive. Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and whomever may take up that baton in the future, lack aircraft carriers, ballistic missiles, jet bombers, and any other means of power projection other than through terrorist immigrants of one kind or another.
In Paris, Spain, Belgium, Germany, and England, terrorist immigrants (or the terrorist children of recent immigrants) have proven deadly many times over. The danger this fifth column presents does not depend on foreign bases in places like Afghanistan; it does not take much training to drive a truck over civilians enjoying a public event. So, whether the weapons is guns, bombs, trucks, or planes, Trump was on the right track during the campaign with his controversial “Muslim ban.”
What has not proved decisive in combatting Islamic extremism is the military’s and foreign policy establishment’s focus on trying to reform societies that give birth to terrorists overseas. Far from “fighting them there, so we don’t have to fight them at home,” because of porous American and European borders, we have endured death and destruction at home that our foreign efforts did little to arrest.
What Is Victory?
Taken as a whole, Trump’s stated strategy lacks the essential features of a successful strategy, which involves tailoring means to ends. If 100,000 troops under Obama’s Afghan surge, with aggressive clear and sweep operations and the distribution of firebases in contested hills and valleys could not do the job, it is hard to believe doubling or tripling the current allocation of troops—about 8,000—will accomplish more. Trump has said we will abandon nation-building and demand more from Pakistan. This is sensible, of course, but it raises the question of why we are there. Even if Pakistan were to continue to cultivate disorder in its Afghan neighbors upon our departure, what is the worst case scenario? A poor, corrupt, Afghanistan in a low level civil war? It has been such, despite our presence, for the last 15 years.
But without a time based limit of some kind, we end up, as we have here, a 16 year war with no conceivable end in sight. At what point can one declare victory in a country that has not had peace in 40 years?
Trump in his address to the nation also contrasted a “time-based approach to one based on conditions,” seemingly critical of the withdrawal from Iraq. But without a time based limit of some kind, we end up, as we have here, a 16 year war with no conceivable end in sight. At what point can one declare victory in a country that has not had peace in 40 years? A victory that cannot be defined likely cannot be achieved.
Finally, the suggestion that rules of engagement are holding us back seems to ignore that the rules emanate often from the military commanders themselves, such as former commander Stanley McChrystal, who recognize the self-defeating impact of heavy firepower and civilian deaths in counterinsurgencies. This puzzle facing all counterinsurgencies cannot simply be wished away through aggression.
A Real Strategy
A real strategy to deal with terrorism would recognize that it will persist on some level, because Islamic extremism is a persistent phenomenon of Islam itself. Like piracy or crime, it is an unavoidable feature of the human terrain of the world we live in. However, like piracy and crime, it can be addressed and its impact reduced.
First and foremost, it can be limited significantly through tough borders and a reduction in permitted travel and immigration from the Middle East. Second, as in the early days of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, our military remains able to deliver decisive punitive attacks against nation-states that harbor hostile terrorists, even if its abilities in fighting extended counter-insurgencies is limited. And, finally, because of the boom in America’s energy-production, we can now limit our commercial and other contacts with disorderly parts of the world like the Middle East and Afghanistan with very little impingement on our prosperity.
We have elected leadership, in part, for the people to weigh in on foreign policy.
More generally, we need to learn from recent history and be guided by our own well-ordered system of civilian control of the military. Foreign policy is too important to be “left up to the generals,” and it would be an abdication of presidential leadership to allow the military to proceed without clear guidance on goals and milestones. Generals inevitably have parochial concerns involving their own and institutional honor that do not take into account the broader national interest.
Generals also rarely predict an inconclusive stalemate. From the Marne to Iraq and Vietnam, generals have promised swift victories or suggested, in the midst of quagmires, that victory could be vouchsafed by a few tens of thousands of more troops. We have elected leadership, in part, for the people to weigh in on foreign policy. Nixon won by promising to leave Vietnam. Obama’s election in 2008 had much to do with public weariness of the never-ending Iraq war. Trump won, in part, by voicing a broad and popular rejection of America’s excessive involvement in a variety of foreign policy commitments around the globe.
Edmund Burke’s insight often is summarized as recognizing the wisdom of the species, in spite of the limits of individual men. The same can be said of the good sense of the American people, who have in a bipartisan way, shown indifference and even hostility to the flawed projects of the American elite. Trump promised to “drain the swamp,” but Republicans in the post-Reagan era have had a blind spot for what Eisenhower termed the “military industrial complex.” Afghanistan continues because nothing significant has been or can be accomplished there, but leaving would be an admission of flaws of strategy, leadership, and execution at many levels. While such a blow to American prestige may be a heavy one, the cost of interminable war will be infinite for those families who sacrifice their sons and daughters, because our generals couldn’t find their way home.