The Conflict in Afghanistan Is Trump's War Now
August 24, 2017
Andrew J. Bacevich / Los Angeles Times & Daniel Larison / The American Conservative & Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com & Steven Shepard / Politico.com
The main effect of the ongoing war on terrorism has been to exacerbate the problem that it purports to solve. Trump has defined the mission as "killing terrorists" (which guarantees that more terrorists will be created and ensures the mission will never end). There have been higher numbers of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria since Trump took office, and his statement that he "lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our warfighters" promises that the same will happen in Afghanistan.
The Conflict in Afghanistan Is Trump's War Now
Andrew J. Bacevich / Los Angeles Times Op-ed
(August 22, 2017) -- With President Trump's Monday night speech, prospects for ending the Afghanistan war anytime soon have vanished. Whether that bodes well for US national security is another matter.
Nearly 16 years after US forces first entered Afghanistan, there they remain. Success, narrowly defined as creating Afghan institutions capable of preventing that nation from once more becoming a haven for terrorists, has proved elusive. Among those noting that absence of success was Trump himself. Prior to becoming president, he denounced the war as a "terrible mistake," a "total disaster," and a "complete waste." In 2013, he tweeted that "We should leave Afghanistan immediately."
Now in the most important foreign policy decision of his presidency so far, he has chosen to perpetuate and to expand the war. Acknowledging that Americans are "weary of war without victory," Trump promised to press on. "In the end," he insisted, "we will win."
His commitment to that goal is unambiguous, even if his strategy for achieving it is devoid of specifics. Yet from this point forward, blaming President Obama for whatever happens in Kabul or Kandahar or the Hindu Kush won't work. Afghanistan is Trump's war now.
Furthermore, given the president's pronounced aversion to admitting error, his embrace of the Afghanistan conflict is almost certainly irreversible. Apparently, he will support a request from his field commander to send a few thousand additional US troops into battle.
Yet barring the prospect that a handful of reinforcements will suddenly turn the tide and "win"— an outcome that at this point only the naïve or the gullible will expect -- America's war in Afghanistan is almost certain to continue for the duration of Trump's presidency. He will bequeath to his successor a conflict that is already the longest in our nation's history.
Trump's supporters will likely applaud his move. So too will the foreign policy establishment he once ridiculed. The establishment's success in turning Trump around on Afghanistan has implications that go far beyond that particular country.
At least implicitly, Trump now endorses the twin assumptions that since 9/11 have formed the basis for the larger war on terrorism: First, that sustained US military action provides the most effective means of defeating terrorism; second, that the physical presence of US forces in vulnerable Muslim-majority countries provides a means to render them inhospitable to terrorist entities.
In short, if we keep killing bad guys and persist in nation-building (an effort Trump derides at the same time he implicitly endorses it), the problem will eventually solve itself.
Little evidence exists to support those propositions. Indeed, the post-9/11 US military experience not only in Afghanistan but also in Iraq and elsewhere points to precisely the opposite conclusion:
The principal effect of the ongoing war on terrorism has been to exacerbate the problem that it purports to solve. The entire enterprise has been what Trump once understood it to be: a terrible mistake, a total disaster and a complete waste. Now, in effect, he has recanted.
A decision to stay the course in Afghanistan tells us nothing about what Trump may do next week or next month with regard to China or North Korea or Russia, not to mention truly momentous matters such as the threat posed by climate change.
He remains utterly unpredictable. Yet his decision on Afghanistan does tell us one thing: Trump has abandoned what once ostensibly formed the foundation of his presidency -- a commitment to "America first."
Whoever or whatever benefits by prolonging the war in Afghanistan, it certainly won't be the United States.
Andrew J. Bacevich is the author of "America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History."
Trump's Awful Afghanistan Speech
Daniel Larison / The American Conservative
(August 22, 2017) -- Reading over the text of Trump's Afghanistan speech, I was struck by his easy acceptance of the conventional hawkish view that withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 was a mistake that shouldn't be repeated elsewhere:
And, as we know, in 2011, America hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq. As a result, our hard-won gains slipped back into the hands of terrorist enemies. Our soldiers watched as cities they had fought for, and bled to liberate, and won, were occupied by a terrorist group called ISIS.
The vacuum we created by leaving too soon gave safe haven for ISIS to spread, to grow, recruit, and launch attacks. We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq.
This convenient bit of revisionism omits several important things. First, most Iraqis didn't want a continued US presence in Iraq. Second, the US could not secure a new Stats of Forces Agreement that gave American forces legal immunity, and it was politically impossible for Iraqi leaders to agree to such a condition after eight years of occupation.
Finally, a US residual force would not have been enough to stop any of the things that happened in the years that followed, and their presence would have very likely triggered a new insurgency against them. Withdrawing from Iraq wasn't a mistake. It was a necessary first step in extricating the US from its entanglements in the region.
Unless the US intends to make Afghanistan its permanent ward and wishes to be at war there forever, there is no compelling reason for a continued American military presence. Nothing in Trump's speech provided such a reason. He embraced the sunk cost fallacy ("our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made"), and ignored that throwing away more lives on a failed war is far worse than cutting our losses.
He indulged the safe haven myth, according to which the US must police countries on the other side of the earth without end for fear that they might give shelter to terrorists if we do not. These are all very familiar and cliched assumptions by now, and they are wrong.
We can't rationally weigh costs and benefits of a war that can't end unless it somehow redeems the losses already suffered, and Afghanistan is never going to be made secure enough at an acceptable cost to eliminate the possibility that some part of its territory might play host to jihadists. Trump calls his approach "principled realism," but as usual it is neither principled nor realist.
Trump defined the mission as "killing terrorists," which practically guarantees that more terrorists will be created in the process and ensures that the mission will never end.
There have been higher numbers of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria since Trump took office, and Trump's statement that he "lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our warfighters" promises that the same will happen in Afghanistan.
He also made a rather alarming statement, saying "that no place is beyond the reach of American might and Americans arms." That reflects a potentially very dangerous contempt for the sovereignty of other states that could easily blow up in our faces.
Trump typically dressed up his lack of a discernible strategy as a cunning ruse: "America's enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out."
Of course, people living in their own part of the world can always "wait us out." It is the height of hubris and stupidity to think we can outlast them. His assertion that the US will integrate "all instruments of American power -- diplomatic, economic, and military -- toward a successful outcome" isn't credible when his administration is presiding over the gutting and wrecking of the State Department.
Trump defined victory as "attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge."
Based on this definition, victory is not possible at an acceptable cost. The preoccupation with "winning" an unwinnable war just dooms the US to fight there for decades to come. If we can't admit failure after sixteen years of it, when will we?
No End in Sight for US War in Afghanistan
16 Years In, Trump Continues a Long, Costly Conflict
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(August 22, 2017) – Starting with the 2001 invasion, the US war in Afghanistan is now 16 years in: as President Trump pointed out in last night's speech, the longest war in American history. Even President Trump thought this was excessively long, admitting that "my original instinct was to pull out."
But the US isn't pulling out. Instead, President Trump recommitted the US to a new round of escalation with no concrete end conditions, and formally disavowed a "time-based" approach. He added that he doesn't think the US should publicly announce the dates for ending their "military options."
The reality behind this rhetoric, though, is that once again any pretense of the Afghan War ending is out the window, and the seemingly endless war again has no end in sight. Trump has laid the ground for reckless new escalations, and in presenting 9/11 and the Iraq withdrawal as justification, is committed to staying.
This may point to the US again following down the path that President Obama took on Afghanistan, with large escalations early in his presidency accomplishing nothing, and a drawdown to give the impression the war was almost over.
Yet as with Obama, President Trump seems to be uncomfortable ending America's longest war on his watch. This commits the US to years of more conflict in Afghanistan, and the casualties that will undoubtedly follow. Assuming President Trump's end condition of a victory "worthy" of the number of soldiers killed remains intact, the war is likely to get further and further away from an end.
Mattis Undecided on Number of US Troops
Promises 'Broader Approach' But Offers No Details
Fresh off a President Trump's announced escalation of the Afghan War, Defense Secretary James Mattis has revealed that he has yet to decide on the number of additional US troops to ask for. The expectation is that the size of this deployment won't be made public.
With Trump's decision to keep war plans and troop figures secret, the commitment to escalation in the speech appears to have set the stage for a substantial buildup. It's not clear, however, that the deployment will all come at once.
Before Trump's speech, reports from White House sources were that 4,000 additional troops would be committed. Senior officials are also saying today that a deployment of around 3,900 is imminent, suggesting Mattis' decision is on troops to be sent above and beyond that initial figure
Mattis also said that the war itself would be fought with a "broader approach" than under past administrations. As with other comments on the escalation, this didn't come with a lot of explanation about what that actually means, and in all likelihood, the American public will be kept in the dark about much of it.
A Wall of Public Skepticism on Afghanistan War
Polls show Americans have soured on the idea of keeping troops in the country
Steven Shepard / Politico.com
(August 21, 2017) -- President Donald Trump made his case to the nation Monday night for increasing the US military engagement in Afghanistan, trying to convince an American public that's deeply skeptical of increasing the nation's investment in the long-running conflict.
After more than 15 years of war in Afghanistan, polls show Americans don't believe the US is making significant progress, and they've soured on keeping troops in the country. And in recent years, a majority of Americans has said the Afghanistan War -- which began in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks -- was a mistake in the first place.
Trump acknowledged Americans' apprehension about committing more to the war effort -- though he said he wouldn't specify how many more troops he would send to Afghanistan, or for how long.
"Nearly 16 years after [the] September 11 attacks -- after the extraordinary sacrifice of blood and treasure -- the American people are weary of war without victory," he said. "Nowhere is this more evident than with the war in Afghanistan -- the longest war in American history: 17 years. I share the American people's frustration."
Trump is right in his assessment: The nation doesn't think the US is winning the war. According to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll conducted earlier this month, only 23 percent of voters said they believe the US is winning the war in Afghanistan. Thirty-eight percent said the US is losing the war, though 39 percent said they have no opinion.
But that doesn't mean Trump's intention to increase troop levels will be popular initially. Only 20 percent of voters said they thought the US should increase the number of troops it has in Afghanistan -- compared to 37 percent who want to draw down troop levels and 24 percent who want to keep levels about the same. Nineteen percent had no opinion.
Increasing troop levels is more popular among Trump's electoral base, however. Thirty-one percent of both Republicans and Trump voters said the US should increase troop levels, and 38 percent of voters who strongly approve of the president's job performance.
The decision to send more troops to Afghanistan could also amplify the historically wide gender gap concerning the president's job performance. In last week's Gallup tracking poll interviews, Trump approval among male respondents, 43 percent, ran far ahead of his approval rating among women: 29 percent.
This month's POLITICO/Morning Consult poll showed a gender gap on Afghanistan troop levels, too: 26 percent of male voters supported sending more troops to Afghanistan, but only 15 percent of female voters agreed.
Polling suggests that Trump, the third president to address the nation on Afghanistan, confronts a country that has moved substantially from the tenures of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
In November 2001 -- roughly a month into the conflict -- only 9 percent of Americans told Gallup pollsters that they thought the US made a mistake in sending military forces to Afghanistan; 89 percent said it wasn't a mistake.
Even after more than seven years of war, two weeks into Obama's presidency just 30 percent said it was a mistake to send troops to Afghanistan, while 66 percent said it wasn't.
But that slipped as Obama's presidency progressed and the US drew down its troop levels. The last time Gallup asked the question, back in June 2015, a 54 percent majority said the war was a mistake, and only 42 percent said it wasn't.
Other pollsters asked Americans to evaluate the war in another way -- was it worth it? On those questions, there was even less support for the conflict. In December 2014, 56 percent of Americans told an ABC News/Washington Post poll that, "considering the costs to the United States versus the benefits," the war was not worth fighting. Only 38 percent said the war was worth fighting.
Still, this month's POLITICO/Morning Consult poll points to a path forward for Trump to sell a troop increase to Americans. Despite the overall hesitance to commit more troops to the effort, 40 percent of voters agreed with this statement:
"When it comes to the war in Afghanistan, the US needs a new, more aggressive strategy, even if that means deploying more US troops."
That's more than the 32 percent who agreed more with the alternative statement:
"The US should withdraw all US troops, even if that means a decreased ability to combat insurgent forces, such as the Taliban and ISIS extremists."
Twenty-eight percent had no opinion between the two statements.
It's an argument that plays best with the president's political base: 56 percent of self-identified Trump voters think more troops should be on the table given those two choices, but only 28 percent of those who said they voted for Hillary Clinton agree.
Trump framed a troop increase as necessary to the US effort, but he risks advocating a policy that runs counter to his past statements and own political instincts. Like the majority of Americans in polls in recent years, Trump called the war a "mistake" during the early days of his presidential campaign -- though he later denied saying it.
Previously, on his now-famous Twitter account, Trump's views on the Afghanistan War appeared unequivocal.
"We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation," Trump tweeted in November 2013. "Let's get out!"
Trump acknowledged that dissonance Monday night in his speech, delivered at Fort Myer, in Northern Virginia. "My original instinct was to pull out," he said. "And, historically, I like following my instincts. But all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office -- in other words, when you're president of the United States."
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