In his address to the nation on Afghanistan, President Donald Trump was essentially correct in his analysis of many aspects of the conflict. But the opaque nature of his plan and what constitutes victory leaves Americans uncertain about the next chapter in America’s longest war.
Trump correctly described the regional nature of the conflict and categorized it as a South Asian issue. He also effectively pressed Pakistan to end its duplicity in concurrently fighting and harboring terrorist groups operating on its soil.
But Trump may have made a geostrategic mistake by also calling for more involvement and investment from India, because Pakistan may fear that its longtime rival would encircle it with a ramped-up presence in Afghanistan. That may make it harder to prod Islamabad to align its actions with its American ally.
Trump also drew upon the right lessons from drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq — a plan designed during the George W. Bush administration and implemented during the Obama administration. In that case, sectarianism quickly returned, and the post-U. S. security vacuum was filled in part by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria terrorists. ISIS is operating in Afghanistan, too, as are remnants of al-Qaida and a strongly resurgent Taliban, all of which would accelerate their gains should the U.S. similarly draw down its forces.
It’s understandable and strategic that Trump wants to make troop levels conditional and not tied to a timeline. And he was clear that his lack of specificity on how many more U.S. troops would be deployed reflects his pledge to not telegraph military activity to enemy forces. But while the widely reported number of up to 4,000 additional troops might keep the conflict a stalemate, or even give a boost to the beleaguered Afghan government, it’s unlikely to fundamentally alter the conflict’s dynamics.
Trump wisely acknowledged that there needs to be a diplomatic track, too. And while he may reflect Americans’ skepticism of nation-building, it’s naive to ignore the need to address underlying social conditions — especially corrosive corruption — that erode confidence in the Afghan government.
“He unfortunately talked to the American people about winning, and that’s where we’ve gone down the wrong road for 17 years in this country,” James Jeffrey, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told an editorial writer. “This is the maintenance of a long-term, not necessarily terminal but chronic disease. And the idea is you maintain it with the minimum amount of cost in terms of casualties and money and troops while avoiding the thing metastasizing on you.”
Keeping the conflict from metastasizing is not really a rallying cry for a war-weary nation, but it is a realistic and appropriate goal to give the Afghan government more time to build the military capacity needed to make diplomacy work. In the meantime, Americans should not forget the sacrifices of those deployed to this enduring war.