For a change, Trump listens to experts, hits mark on Afghanistan
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On Monday night, President Trump made a primetime speech, on a matter of national and international import: the future of the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan.

What we learned from President Trump’s speech is that he and his national security team correctly assess that Afghanistan — and the entire region — may not be won, but it most certainly can be lost.

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With a myriad of terrorist groups ideologically oriented toward attacking the United States and its interests, nuclear weapons, large conventional militaries, regional competition and great power rivalries, the South Asian region is something of a powder keg that threatens core U.S. interests, regional security and our homeland. 

 

President Trump and his team rightly believe that time is the wrong metric for success in evaluating the conflict in Afghanistan. As Secretary Mattis reminded the president: “We haven't fought a 16-year war so much as we have fought a one-year war, 16 times."

We have served in and studied the region. We also have had the opportunity to hear the current leaders of Afghanistan provide their assessment of what is happening. We know that Monday night's message will resonate with them. One has to look no further than the tweet of Afghanistan’s Ambassador to the United States Hamdullah Mohib, to see the support of Afghanistan’s leadership. 

It's long past time our leaders leveled with the American people and admitted that our presence in Afghanistan is likely to be enduring — not unlike our presence in Kuwait, Germany and Korea. But it is also important that Trump made clear that it’s not our intent to re-make Afghanistan in our own image. That is something beyond our capability. 

The Afghan people have to chart their own course on democracy, corruption and a myriad of other issues. The United States and our allies are there to conduct train, advise and assist and counterterrorism missions.

In fact, Trump’s decision appears to be setting the United States on a long term course to conduct such missions in Afghanistan. It is likely that during the next full solar eclipse in 2024, the level of the United States and NATO effort in Afghanistan will be the same.

But it’s equally important to note that these missions are not nation-building efforts. They are focused on maintaining a reasonable level of security and stability in Afghanistan and the region and to protect the U.S. homeland and the security of our allies.

In short, this is an insurance-policy approach.

In this time of aggressively evolving threats, failed and failing states and nuclear powers engaged in military stand-off, we must invest in these long-term, stability-oriented efforts. We can ill afford a strategic surprise the likes of 9/11 emerging from some ungoverned corner of this region or nuclear materials falling into the hands of terrorist groups. 

That all being said, the Afghanistan decision may not have been the most important thing that we learned from the president’s speech. Monday's announcement came at the end of a deliberative process led by some of our most experienced national security leaders. What we saw was a president who, for the first time, admitted that facts and a clear-eyed view of the totality of the situation — not political expediency — was what changed his mind. 

Is Trump growing into the presidency? For many, this is a settled question with the answer being an emphatic no. But, for some, the jury is still out.

Even the most hardened members of the anti-Trump camp must admit that Monday's speech communicated a remarkable amount of humility and self-awareness, particularly for this president.

“My original instinct was to pull out. And historically, I like following my instincts. But all my life, I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office ... So, I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle. After many meetings, over many months, we held our final meeting last Friday at Camp David with my cabinet and generals to complete our strategy.”

The decision he made in the end was precisely the opposite of his instinct to pull out.

“In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear: We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America. And we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us, or anywhere in the world, for that matter.”

After communicating what he learned through studying the problem at hand, he leveraged his bit of humility in a constructive manner and turned to the need to learn from the recent history of U.S. engagements abroad, making a regional view the centerpiece of his “new approach.”

“But to prosecute this war, we will learn from history. As a result of our comprehensive review, American strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia will change dramatically...”

Humility is among the most powerful attributes of any leader. The decisions that an American president must make are always fraught and deeply consequential. They must be taken only after careful consideration and thoughtful reflection.

The "Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde" nature of the Trump presidency is not lost on us. Unfortunately, his very presidential announcement of the Afghanistan decision was bookended by Charlottesville and the president’s rally in Phoenix on Tuesday night. We can only hope that, as the administration wears on, we will see far more of the humility and learning expressed in the former and far less of moral equivocation and demagoguery demonstrated in the latter.

Alex Gallo served as a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee and is the former deputy director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. He is a West Point graduate, a combat veteran and a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School. 

Joe Whited served as the intelligence lead for the House Armed Services Committee. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and the Naval War College. He is a combat veteran who spent over 18 years in the intelligence community. He is also a former Republican candidate for Virginia's 5th Congressional District. Find him on Twitter @Whited_JJ.


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