By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
What is said on the campaign trail often confronts reality in the White House. Now, President Trump has to face that reality by contending with myriad foreign policy challenges, none more vexing than what to do about Afghanistan.
This situation has confounded both Democratic and Republican administrations, which have struggled to find a way forward. Does the U.S. completely pull out, unsure of what course to take? Should we send additional military forces to stabilize Afghanistan? Or should we just turn the mission over to contractors? Each option has its own set of obstacles.
In his first primetime address since taking office, Trump on Monday evening discussed his “path forward.”
Trump Introduces South Asia Strategy
In his address to the nation from Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, Trump not only gave his vision forward in Afghanistan, but unveiled a comprehensive strategy for South Asia.
The president began by noting that the U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan since 2001, making it America’s longest war. He said he shares the frustration of the American people.
“I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money — and most importantly, lives — trying to rebuild countries in our own image instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations,” Trump stated.
“That is why shortly after my inauguration, I directed Secretary of Defense [James] Mattis and my national security team to undertake a comprehensive review of all strategic options in Afghanistan and South Asia,” he said.
Trump Changes His Mind about an Afghan Pullout
The President acknowledged that his original instinct was to pull out of Afghanistan. But “all my life, I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk of the Oval Office,” Trump observed.
Trump said the United States “must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives. The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory. They deserve the tools they need and the trust they have earned to fight and win.”
Trump Afghanistan Plan Diverges from Obama’s
The President’s 30-minute speech differed from the one President Obama gave in 2009. In that speech, Obama said that the core of the U.S. strategic approach to Afghanistan would be a timetable for withdrawal based on conditions on the ground.
Trump told the troops at Fort Myer, “We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq.”
The Obama administration was on pace to remove all U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan, but the situation in Iraq changed his calculations. The withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq left a power vacuum that the Islamic State quickly filled. Obama did not want a replication of this in Afghanistan, so he capped U.S. troop strength there at a certain level.
Many national security strategists speculate that the U.S. will add approximately 4,000 troops in Afghanistan. But Trump never mentioned numbers, and he refrained from providing details of his strategy.
“A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions. I’ve said it many times how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin or end military options,” the President said.
“We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities. Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on,” Trump went on. “America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”
Trump Notes that Afghanistan’s Ultimate Future Relies on Its Citizens
“Ultimately, it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future, to govern their society, and to achieve an everlasting peace,” Trump said. “We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society. We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.”
Trump is half right. Ultimately, the future of Afghanistan is up to its people. But without effective governance at the national level, it will be impossible for the country to reach any level of sustainability.
The government in Kabul is corrupt. It can barely govern in the capital, let alone in the provinces.
This corruption at the government level has always been a challenge for Afghanistan and will continue to be a challenge. How will Trump’s new approach address this issue? How does the U.S. support Afghanistan and, at the same time, deal with the systemic corruption throughout the government, which is 100 percent financed by foreign aid?
Stability Operations Are U.S. Military’s Achilles Heel
Stability operations have always been a military weakness of the U.S. We witnessed this weakness in Iraq, Syria and Libya.
It’s much easier to remove a government than it is to install effective civilian institutions. What are Trump’s metrics of success in this endeavor? How will he enable the Afghan government to be more effective in the provinces? How will the U.S. work with a corrupt Afghan military that is plagued by corruption and severe logistics problems?
Trump Pushes New South Asia Strategy
The president next focused on the most pressing aspect of his new South Asia strategy, dealing with Pakistan. “The next pillar of our new strategy is to change the approach in how to deal with Pakistan,” Trump stated. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.”
Pakistan has played a duplicitous game of accepting billions from the U.S., while supporting more than 20 terrorist organizations within its borders such as ISIS, the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
What did Trump mean, therefore, when he said, “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars. At the same time, they are housing the same terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change. And that will change immediately.”
Trump Includes India in New South Asia Strategy
Another aspect of the President’s South Asia strategy is to develop a comprehensive approach for India to help the U.S. provide economic assistance and development to Afghanistan.
However, Trump’s call for bilateral cooperation is far easier to talk about than to implement. Pakistan and India are mortal enemies and have fought numerous small wars since the end of World War II. Indeed, the two nations almost went to the brink of nuclear war in 1999, which would have been catastrophic.
The President has unshackled the military. Trump said he would not micromanage the war. Instead, he will seek victory by destroying the terrorists no matter where they hide.
“However, our commitment is not unlimited and our support is not a blank check,” Trump added. “The government of Afghanistan must carry their share of the military, political and economic burden. The American people expect to see real reforms, real progress and real results.”
What are those expected results? What are the measures of performance and effectiveness of his new strategy? How will the U.S. measure victory? And what does victory look like? Trump made no mention of Russia and China or how they factor into this new strategy.
Donald Trump is the latest U.S. President to deal with Afghanistan. Will he be any different than his predecessors? Only time will tell.