“Monday was the night Donald Trump became president of the United States.”
That’s what you’re likely to hear from Trump surrogates on television panels for the next couple of days, now that Trump has delivered his address to the nation about what he intends to do in Afghanistan. Republican lawmakers will praise the address as a comprehensive, regional strategy for the South Asian region that was well-considered, deliberative and new.
Minutes after the speech was over, Sen. John McCain was already pushing out a press release that said “the president is now moving us well beyond the prior administration’s failed strategy of merely postponing defeat.” House Speaker Paul Ryan patted Trump on the back for a rigorous inter-agency debate, before adding during his town hall on CNN, “I think I heard a new Trump strategy or a new doctrine, so to speak.”
You have to wonder whether any of them actually watched the speech, because there was nothing new in Trump’s war plan – and the president didn’t offer up any details about what he wants to achieve.
While Trump certainly talked at length about what he hoped to accomplish in Afghanistan (an annihilation of al-Qaeda and ISIS, the degradation of the Taliban insurgency, a politically self-reforming Afghan government, a Pakistan that stops providing quarter to permitting terrorist groups), he didn’t explain how his proposed strategy would realize any of those goals. Instead we got a series of tactics and a list of assumptions that have guided U.S. policy for the last decade and a half, with the biggest being that an abrupt U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would turn the country into a prime breeding ground for terrorism. Trump all but said another Sept. 11 from Afghanistan would happen if Washington packed up and left, as if the U.S. is at the mercy of whoever rules Kabul.
We were essentially told that more U.S. troops needed to be sent to war because the Afghan security forces were neither strong enough nor capable enough to fend for themselves. We were given a simplistic choice between letting Afghanistan become America’s kryptonite or helping the Afghans for another few years (or longer) to prevent their country from being swallowed up by jihadists drooling for the destruction of the West. Why Afghanistan is different or more dangerous to the U.S. than any of the other safe havens that jihadist groups already enjoy (Libya, western Iraq, eastern Syria, southern and central Yemen, the southern Philippines, Somalia, swaths of Africa, etc., etc.) was left unexplained.
There is one new item on Donald Trump’s list of Afghanistan policies: U.S. troops will be advising Afghan forces and dropping bombs as long as necessary to win the war. Yet, it would have helped if Trump had clued the nation in as to what “victory” means and what Afghanistan will need to look like before Americans can come home. If Trump truly believes that winning means “[a]ttacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge,” then we’d better prepare for another 15 years of doing the same thing on an endless loop.
Afghanistan is very far from meeting Trump’s bar of success. That means that success will prove as elusive during Trump’s presidency as it was during Barack Obama’s.