In a remarkable speech from the White House, the world saw qualities in President Trump that were lacking in his predecessor: patience, nuance and an apolitical deference to his team. After what some felt was too long of a review, the president announced his administration’s strategy for winning in Afghanistan. It was worth the wait.
Victory over terrorism is something that serious people understand involves a long war that is anathema to timetables. Perhaps the best aspect of the new strategy was not just decisively setting aside the idea of strict schedules for how many troops will be deployed, rather it was the expansive context.
Terrorist are non-state actors. A successful Afghanistan strategy must be about more than Afghanistan. This one explicitly includes Pakistan, India and the greater Middle East. So it was reassuring to hear the president say, “For its part, Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror.”
Trump warned our allies in Islamabad that the new strategy will work one way or the other to target the terror refugees in their mountains. It was also reassuring to see where Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman Mattis The US can't go back to business as usual with Pakistan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate nears surprise deal on short-term debt ceiling hike Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon chiefs to Congress: Don't default MORE flew immediately after the Camp David session — Jordan.
Today, there are fewer U.S. troops based overseas relative to the world population than at any time since 1950. We have been in a long, slow withdrawal for decades (with half of the active forces in uniform than in the 1950s, despite nearly twice the civilian population).
Yet my research shows that the countries and regions that have more U.S. troops, notably South Korea/Asia and Germany/Europe, grow faster and experience more social development in things like healthcare and electrification. This isn’t nation-building. This is the outcome of America’s unselfish and patient defense of economic freedom.
Until 1990, the strategy was simply to counter communism. That war wasn't won simply by killing communists. Rather, victory came when our allies outgrew freedom’s enemies. China flipped to capitalism when it witnessed the prosperity of Japan, then Korea, then Singapore, then Hong Kong. And this is why Jordan and Pakistan are so vital now.
The political pundits started buzzing about Trump’s “change of direction” almost immediately after he finished speaking. If you want to be charitable, and that’s not the pundit’s game, realize that this is the first time in a long time that you have heard a president not only say, but explain, why he was doing something different, even if it might be politically unpopular.
He is being patient. The U.S. military will maintain troops inside Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, leaving the authority to set troop levels in the hands of local commanders — where it belongs.
Often, experts will say something was the greatest foreign policy mistake in American history (such as the escalation in Vietnam in the mid 1960s or the Iraq invasion in 2003), but the epic disasters in our history were the hasty withdrawals, a sad sign of impatient political calculus, or the sins of omission (e.g., Rwanda).
Frankly, I though President Trump’s reference to the 2011 pullout of Iraq was brilliant. Obama’s politically-driven withdrawal was an epic disaster and led directly to ISIS. America will not be leaving power vacuums on Trump’s watch.
Tim Kane is the JP Conte Fellow in immigration studies at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Kane also served as a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with two tours of overseas duty. He is the author of "Total Volunteer Force"(2017).
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