Al-Baghdadi killing heralds Trump’s dumping of Afghanistan

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ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died “like a dog,” “whimpering and screaming” like a coward, President Trump reported Sunday after the U.S. special operations raid in Syria. And Trump’s recent abrupt troop withdrawal from northern Syria, roundly condemned by many on both sides of the political spectrum, swiftly turned into a victory lap.

Next, President Trump likely will cut U.S. military ties to Afghanistan, just as he did with Syria. 

Contrary to popular belief, Trump’s foreign policy doctrine is not pure impulse and personal bias masquerading as strategy. Instead, it is framed in terms of return on investment. Unlike his immediate predecessors, who framed their foreign policy in idealistic terms, Trump eschews the advancement of moral values and conducts foreign policy within a short-term transactional prism. 

Consider the stark differences over the past 20 years. For example, President George W. Bush’s second inaugural speech explained that the “policy of the United States is to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” Post 9/11, Bush stated that the “survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” 

In contrast, President Obama’s foreign policy goals embraced a limited military role and greater reliance on diplomacy and international alliances. As he explained in one speech at West Point, “U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.” Perhaps to draw a distinction from the ambitious Bush doctrine, Obama noted “a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.”  

Aside from the differences regarding the use of force, both presidents were unified by the pursuit of certain ideals in their foreign policy doctrines.

Trump is cut from different cloth. He consistently has opposed the use of American military resources unless there is a clear economic payoff. He probably is the first U.S. president to ask for a direct quid pro quo for the invasion of Iraq and the lives sacrificed there in the form of oil. And he made a campaign promise to bring American troops home.

Then, consider Trump’s decision-making framework built on these pillars: 

  • “Great nations do not fight endless wars”;
  • Make other countries, including key allies, pay for their own security;
  • Build strong national borders;
  • Increase military spending and modernize defense assets;
  • Enhance American prestige, end free-riding by “‘allies’ [who] are making billions screwing us”; and
  • Put America first.

Conventional wisdom dictates that Trump’s precipitous troop withdrawal from Syria was a disaster that encouraged Turkey to invade that country. Trump’s response is that Turkey did not breach our border and it is not his concern to protect Syria’s territory or the Kurds in Syria. In other words, a result predicted by the direct application of the Trump doctrine.

Applying Trump’s framework to Afghanistan, it is inevitable that the president will trigger a withdrawal of U.S. armed forces in the near future. Again, conventional wisdom — espoused by the “deep state,” beltway bandits, parasitic contractors and consultants in the Washington swamp — will cry that withdrawal from Afghanistan will be disastrous.

But Afghanistan is a disaster even with U.S. presence there. According to one estimate, the war has cost the U.S. $975 billion since 2001. U.S. military deaths total at least 2,218, according to Department of Defense statistics (other estimates put the number at 2,400) and more than 20,000 have been wounded. At least 147,000 people have died since the conflict began in 2001, including about 38,000 civilians.

Trump has been hostile toward U.S. involvement since the beginning. He has described Afghanistan as “a complete waste,” saying we have been “serving as policemen in Afghanistan, and that was not meant to be the job of our Great Soldiers.” In recent remarks, he said, “It’s a war that’s been going on almost 19 years and, frankly, it’s ridiculous.” His attempt at securing a peace deal with the Taliban was purely to dump and run.

There is no immediate indication that the situation in Afghanistan will change for the better. The closest analogy for building a stable society in that part of the world is Pakistan — and it took the British Empire 90 years. Despite direct British rule for 90 years, and colonial rule for over a 100 years before then, Pakistan is not a stable democracy or a model for anyone to emulate.

Expecting Afghanistan to turn out differently in just 19 years, when the actual diurnal administration is at the mercy of a corrupt local government, is sheer folly. Even following the conventional approach, Pakistan represents the best-case outcome for Afghanistan in 100 years. The American taxpayer is unlikely to pay trillions of dollars to create another Pakistan.

Trump did not get elected to follow conventional foreign policy with its endless follies overseas. The electorate recognized — and rejected — the foolishness of these alien entanglements and saw through the swamp’s purported wisdom when they elected Trump to office. And if past is prelude, a swift withdrawal from Afghanistan fits perfectly into Trump’s decision matrix. It will surely evoke condemnation, but 19 years did not build a stable state in Afghanistan and 19 more is not going to. 

Unless the American taxpayer is willing to commit another 80 years and over $5 trillion more to bring Afghanistan into something approximating a stable country, the present strategy is too expensive. If Afghans care to establish a stable democracy, they must take control of their own destiny.

Sandeep Gopalan (@DrSGopalan) is vice chancellor and executive vice president of academic affairs at Piedmont International University in North Carolina. He previously was a professor of law and pro vice chancellor for academic innovation at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He was dean of law schools in Ireland and Australia, and has taught law in four countries.

Tags Donald Trump Foreign policy of Donald Trump ISIS Syria Taliban War in Afghanistan

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