OPINION | Hayden: Afghanistan is Trump's war now

President Trump gave a speech worth listening to last night at Fort Myer. 

First of all, the speech was the product of what I have come to call “regular order.” It was the result of the traditional deliberative process of the American security establishment.

Departments and agencies were asked to weigh in with their views, which were then adjudicated in various meetings within the National Security Council structure.

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Options were developed and teed up for the president. They were discussed with him. He made a decision. 

 

And then he announced that decision in a 25-minute speech rather than in 140 characters.

That's a first for this administration and a far cry from the presidential bomblet at a recent press op where talk of a military option in Venezuela surfaced. That one had the Pentagon redirecting all follow-up questions back to the White House since they had no idea what the president was talking about.

Last night was different: deliberate, thoughtful, more comprehensive.

With regard to substance, the president announced that he was staying the course in Afghanistan and suggested that troop levels would be increased.

That's the path the Obama administration was on and almost certainly would have followed had it not decided to defer this decision (quite appropriately, in my view) to the incoming administration.

Both President Trump and President Obama have gone to school on the ill-advised decision to leave Iraq in 2011.

Last night’s speech also would have been the path recommended by most of those folks (internationalists, like me) who signed letters last summer saying that populist, isolationist candidate Trump would be a danger to American security and foreign policy if elected president.

The president conceded that his final decision went against his original instincts. It certainly cut against his campaign rhetoric and the policy preferences of economic nationalists such as Steve Bannon, the strategic advisor who recently departed from the White House.

More credit to the president.

The president also announced some changes, all of which will be applauded by those responsible for actually implementing his strategy. Future decisions, for example, will be based on conditions on the ground rather than some arbitrary timetable, a perennial issue with the Obama administration.

He also promised that tactical decisions will be made at the tactical level. No more phoning Washington for permission to conduct a double envelopment or to call for indirect fires.

The president also committed to clarify and simplify what had been complex rules of engagement that tried to distinguish between al Qaeda, ISIS and the Taliban when it came to the application of American power. 

The president also said all the right things when it comes to the reality that this has to be a whole-of-government and whole-of-region effort. He is not the first to say so, so it remains to be seen how successful he will be.

He also probably overachieved a bit with his multiple references to “winning” in Afghanistan. The president never quite described what that would look like, and here we might have to accept the reality that “success” is simply an Afghanistan that has not deteriorated to the point where it constitutes a significant danger to the region and the United States — and that might require a continuous American effort as far forward as the eye can currently see.

The most interesting parts of the president’s speech had to do with the broader region. He quite correctly criticized Pakistan for the duplicitous role it has been playing, supporting some American efforts while also working its own relationships with the Taliban and the notorious Haqqani network. That’s why I often refer to Pakistan as the ally from hell.

The president threatened an immediate reduction in U.S. assistance if Pakistan did not move against terrorist safe-havens on its territory. He also seemed to leave a big “watch this space” when it comes to his willingness to authorize unilateral American operations across the border if Pakistan does not act.

Equally interesting were the president’s comments about the positive role that India plays in Afghanistan and his invitation to India to do even more for Kabul. Pakistan views any Indian presence in Afghanistan as strategic encirclement by its longtime rival and has used that presence to justify its relationship with the Taliban.

So, if it sticks to these positions, the administration could set in motion a strategic realignment, not just in the region, but in America’s relationships with countries there.

One thing is certain, though. Whatever complaints the president wants to make about the mess he inherited, this is now his war.

He never wanted that to be the case.

But, as he suggested last night, the world looks different from the Oval Office.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a retired director of the CIA and the National Security Agency.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.