There was something deeply disturbing about the beginning of President Trump’s speech on Afghanistan. It was billed as a speech on his strategy for South Asia, but it was set in a hall in a military base filled with men and women in uniform with every military trapping, including a military band. The president then used this background to edge around the hostile reaction to his “both sides” speech, and wrapped himself in the military in the ways that politicians sometimes wrap themselves in the flag.
There were no torches and parades, and only applause and no salutes. It was a superb exercise in showmanship, but there was still far too much of a touch of Leni Riefenstahl to the entire affair. Perhaps the president can’t be blamed for this. After all, George W. Bush had his “mission accomplished” moment, and President Obama tried to give himself military credibility by locating a strategy speech at West Point. It is far from clear that anyone in uniform was ordered to attend, or ordered to attend in uniform, although this is a question that someone in the media should ask.
Surrounding yourself with the one political institution in the U.S. that still has high political respect and credibility in order to try to make up for a “both sides” remark that the president’s opponents have turned into an exaggerated political crisis may be fair game in today’s Washington. It may even seem necessary. It still, however, went too far. The American military should not be a stage background, and American national security policy should never be cloaked with even a shadow of the kind of militarism used by the worst of nations. Honoring our men and women in uniform is one thing. Using them is another.
The speech did have strong moments, and the president made many key points. He addressed Pakistan for what it is: far more of a state sponsor of terrorism than Iran and surpassed only by Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. But here, as throughout the speech, there was no clear substance or real strategy. There were no specific plans for action, no description of advantages and risks — including Pakistan’s de facto control of air and land access to Afghanistan — and no indication of the timelines and resources involved.
No mention was made of Russian and Iranian action in support of Afghan insurgents, and India was mentioned in ways which implied a clear U.S. strategic tilt toward India without any consideration of the consequences in terms of the tensions between India and Pakistan or how Pakistan would react to a major increase in the Indian role in Afghanistan.
President Trump quite correctly said there was no clear way to predict victory and a time for U.S. disengagement. He was correct in saying that the real world choices boiled down to a “conditions-based strategy” that might win a war of attrition over time, or a deadlines-based strategy that would almost certainly lose. However, he only talked in vague terms about the failure to keep enough U.S. personnel in Afghanistan to train, assist and enable Afghan forces, and at least implied the U.S. would do more. Once again, no details, no plan, no timelines and no indication of the resources required.
A strategy does not consist simply of goals. It consists of practical plans to achieve them. The president did not even mention the need for U.S. airpower and combat air support. He did not describe what needs to be done to strengthen and rebuild the Afghan counterterrorism force. He arguably blamed Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops too quickly from Iraq, and touched on the U.S. successes in fighting ISIS.
But he said nothing about 3,800 more troops — or any other number — and whether train, assist and combat support elements would now be provided to aid regular Afghan combat units in the field. He said nothing about adding support for the Afghan national police and Afghan local police, which have shown they lack the capability to provide local security and comprise well over 40 percent of Afghan forces.
These are the areas where the Obama administration’s deadlines-driven strategy failed almost totally to provide Afghan forces, which it helped rushed in at the last moment before withdrawal, with anything like an adequate post-withdrawal mission capability. It is also the area where a “small” 3,800 person increase in the right kind of military strength in the right mission areas can make a truly major difference.
President Trump did make it clear that the war on terrorism would go on long after the defeat of ISIS. He also, however, implied that would not require major U.S. military resources in new areas in the future. He exaggerated the importance of Afghanistan and Pakistan as a potential source of terrorism relative to the steadily rising number of sources of the threat in other nations. His statement that “today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world,” borders on the ridiculous. It is the strength of the threat, not the number of its fragments, that matters.
President Trump did make it clear that the war on terrorism would go on long after the defeat of ISIS. He also, however, implied that would not require major U.S. military resources in new areas the future. He exaggerated the importance of Afghanistan and Pakistan as a potential source of terrorism relative to the steadily rising number of sources of the threat in other nations. His statement that “today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world,” borders on the ridiculous. It is the strength of the threat, not the number of its fragments, that matters.
Finally, he was even more ambiguous when he stated, “Another fundamental pillar of our new strategy is the integration of all instruments of American power — diplomatic, economic and military — toward a successful outcome. Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen. America will continue its support for the Afghan government and the Afghan military as they confront the Taliban in the field.”
However, he then went on to say, “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists… We will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over. America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress. However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check. 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. Our patience is not unlimited. We will keep our eyes wide open.”
His focus on making U.S. support conditional, rather than open-ended, is critical. It has been a key failure on the part of Bush and Obama administrations, and the Afghan willingness to make unkept promises and failure in “doing it their way” has been critical. At the same time, it reflects the fact that a different kind of nation-building is critical. President Trump failed to address the civil dimension of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, which is not necessary in an exercise in creating a mission impossible. But more importantly, he failed to address the dimension of war that is the most critical problem we face in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and in any future real world fight. Half a strategy is not necessarily better than none, and the civil dimension of such wars is just as critical as the security dimension.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.
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