President Trump proved one thing beyond the shadow of a doubt in his Afghanistan strategy speech Monday night: After nearly 16 years of fighting America’s longest war, there are no new ideas.
He called his plan “dramatically different.”
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It wasn’t. The only thing that seemed a striking change from his two presidential predecessors’ approach to the war launched after the attacks of September 11, 2001, was Trump’s escalatory rhetoric. He repeatedly vowed to “win” a conflict that his Defense Secretary James Mattis told Congress recently “we are not winning” and sharply criticized Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan, a troublesome ally Trump excoriated for offering “safe haven” to terrorists.
Whether and how harshly to call out Pakistan, I’m told, was among the most contentious elements of a debate that raged all the way up until last Friday’s national security team meeting at Camp David.
Among those who leaned toward the tougher line were Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the current commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, and national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, as well as CIA director Mike Pompeo. Trump himself was largely in agreement – as the stinging language in his speech suggested. “The president was leaning toward the harder-line view on Pakistan because he saw the Pakistanis as kind of taking us for a ride,” said one former U.S. official briefed on the policy review debates. “They must be laughing at us kind of thing.”
But beyond the scathing language and an open-ended pledge to “fight to win,” Trump offered few details about a plan that administration sources have said involves the sending of a few thousand more troops to Afghanistan. The Pentagon deems such a move necessary to avoid the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul but it would hardly be a force capable of dramatically changing facts on the ground a few years after a surge to some 100,000 American troops at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency failed to do so.
How the victory would come Trump did not say, although he appeared to issue an ultimatum to Pakistan to cease its support for militants “immediately,” suggested there were no “arbitrary timetables” for American withdrawal aside from unspecific conditions being met, vowed not to micromanage troops from Washington, and pledged not to spend any more money or effort on failed nation-building attempts.
“Yes, we will defeat them, and we will defeat them handily,” Trump said.
Not long ago I interviewed Laurel Miller, who served as America’s top diplomat for Afghanistan and Pakistan until the end of June, when she left the State Department and the Trump administration shut down her office. Here is what she had to say on the subject of winning, a sentiment echoed by numerous other current and former U.S. officials with whom I’ve spoken about this in recent weeks:
“I don’t think there is any serious analyst of the situation in Afghanistan who believes that the war is winnable. It’s possible to prevent the defeat of the Afghan government and prevent military victory by the Taliban, but this is not a war that’s going to be won, certainly not in any time horizon that’s relevant to political decision-making in Washington.”
Still, winning is what Trump offered, along with a trademark helping of bombast, blame-casting and name-calling.
He complained, as Trump often does, about the “bad and very complex hand” he was dealt – and made very clear he was not eager to inherit a conflict that neither Obama’s surge nor George W. Bush’s post-9/11 retaliatory blitz could definitively end. And throughout the speech, his very first prime-time address on an urgent national security decision, Trump showed that no TelePrompter could force him to adopt the formal language of previous presidents, taunting the terrorists from al Qaeda and the Islamic State he has vowed to wipe out as “thugs,” “criminals,” “and yes, losers.”
In many ways, the target of much of his speech was neither al Qaeda nor the Taliban but Barack Obama. Trump went out of his way, for example, to criticize his successor for “hastily and mistakenly” withdrawing from Iraq in 2011 – without mentioning that he supported that move at the time. In his speech on Monday, he claimed that he now viewed it as a mistake so consequential it had shaped his own determination to fight on in Afghanistan.
The most striking – and certainly the most honest – part of the speech came at the very beginning, when Trump owned up to his flip-flop on the Afghan war and skepticism about the battle plan offered by his own commanders, acknowledging what had been apparent from West Wing leaks for months.
All day in the runup to the speech, in fact, commentators delighted in reposting old Trump tweets on Afghanistan that made it abundantly clear what the president – absent the realities of governing – really thinks of the long, grinding war there. “Let’s get out Afghanistan,” Trump had tweeted on January 11, 2013. “Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.”
“My original instinct was to pull out,” Trump acknowledged Monday night, “and historically I like following my instincts.”
That Trump did not follow his instincts marks a victory in the vicious internecine struggles of his White House for McMaster, who made the Afghanistan policy review a personal priority from the start of his tenure but spent months trying and failing to convince his president to go along with a strategy almost identical to the one Trump ultimately announced Monday night.
In fact, McMaster’s hand – and even his language – seemed to be directly in evidence throughout Trump’s speech. Not only was the policy that Trump adopted essentially what he had long been recommending but a key few sentences at the end of the speech seemed drawn directly from what several sources briefed on the administration’s Afghanistan policy review had previously told me was McMaster’s framing of the need to fight on.
Trump labeled his new approach to the long-running conflict an example of “principled realism” and said its goal was to use “strategically applied force” to create the conditions for a peace process. Privately, that is what McMaster has told other U.S. officials – that the additional troops and more aggressive military posture on the ground in Afghanistan will be necessary for the next several years to create conditions for bringing the parties to the negotiating table.
His logic prevailed – for now.
But it remains to be seen at what cost. Trump’s speech came, as the magazine Foreign Policy put it, after months of mounting “frustration at the Defense Department, dismay in Kabul, and internecine fighting within the administration.”
McMaster waged a months-long running battle inside Trump’s national security team that, participants told me, often showed the national security adviser to be out of sync with his capricious boss and others, like recently ousted nationalist faction leader Stephen Bannon, who were wary of generals demanding more troops for a war they hadn’t been able to win in 16 long years of trying.
Meetings were contentious and factionalized from the start – one session for principals in the White House was described by multiple sources to me as a “shitshow” that devolved into a shouting match between McMaster and Bannon, and NBC News later detailed Trump’s intense displeasure over Afghanistan, including his memorable comparison of the country to New York City’s 21 Club. The debate culminated in its later stage with an intense private discussion over what to say about Pakistan even as Bannon’s allies launched increasingly vituperative public attacks on McMaster.
In the end, few of those who participated in the months of back and forth over the long-running war were surprised by where Trump ended up.
A few hours before the speech, I spoke with one former senior official with much experience in the region whose forecast for what Trump would say was dead on.
“Unless he was going to withdraw U.S. troops, you really didn’t have any other choice,” the official told me. “There is no other option that isn’t too risky. If you do nothing at all in a context where security continues to deteriorate, then you just narrow your set of options for the full four years…. If you pull out precipitously you’re definitely going to have a crisis on your hands. So a modest increase stabilizes the situation where it is and prevents the defeat of the government. It’s unsatisfying but it at least preserves your options.”
And so Trump has spent months learning exactly what the Afghan war has taught so many other American leaders in the decade and a half since the United States went charging in to Kabul, not to mention generations of British and Russian generals before them: It’s easy to get in to a conflict in Afghanistan, and hard to leave.