22 August 2017   Leave a comment

I have had some time to go over President Trump’s Afghanistan speech.  The new policy is dramatically different from what he promised as a candidate, a change he freely acknowledged in the speech.  In the speech he identified three “core” interests in Afghanistan:

“First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices……

“Second, the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable……

“Third and finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense…..”

In truth, I suspect that both Presidents Bush and Obama would have stated American interests in Afghanistan in essentially the same words.  On 7 October 2001, President Bush said:

“By destroying camps and disrupting communications, we will make it more difficult for the terror network to train new recruits and coordinate their evil plans.

“Initially, the terrorists may burrow deeper into caves and other entrenched hiding places. Our military action is also designed to clear the way for sustained, comprehensive and relentless operations to drive them out and bring them to justice.

“This military action is a part of our campaign against terrorism, another front in a war that has already been joined through diplomacy, intelligence, the freezing of financial assets and the arrests of known terrorists by law enforcement agents in 38 countries.

“Given the nature and reach of our enemies, we will win this conflict by the patient accumulation of successes, by meeting a series of challenges with determination and will and purpose.

“To all the men and women in our military, every sailor, every soldier, every airman, every Coast Guardsman, every Marine, I say this: Your mission is defined. The objectives are clear. Your goal is just. You have my full confidence, and you will have every tool you need to carry out your duty.”

On 1 December 2009, President Obama said:

“So, no, I do not make this decision lightly. I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat. In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. And this danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.

There is not too much distance between the three Presidents.  There is one important new element of the Trump strategy which is a decision-making process based on conditions on the ground and not timetables:

“Conditions on the ground — not arbitrary timetables — will guide our strategy from now on.  America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out.  I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.

It is true that President Obama did impose a timetable on his troops commitments and that timetable reflected his intent to limit the US commitment.  President Trump’s emphasis on conditions is precisely what the US military has been asking for in Afghanistan, but that criterion is not defined.  As I pointed out yesterday, some conditions would require an extended commitment; others would require a minimal commitment.  In his speech, President Trump was careful to say that the new policy was not a “blank check”.  President Obama made the same promise: “The days of providing a blank check are over. ”

President Trump also indicated that Pakistan had not been a reliable partner in Afghanistan and that he would try to force Pakistan to be cooperative:  “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.  Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan.  It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.”  President Obama made the same observation: “Third, we will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan….We’re in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan. That’s why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border.”

President Trump also indicated that he wanted India to become more involved in the economic development of Afghanistan: “Another critical part of the South Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India — the world’s largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States.  We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.”  The objective is noble, but it overlooks the competition between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan–the two countries have very different objectives.

Finally, President Trump indicated that he had lifted the restrictions on the American military in the field (“Finally, my administration will ensure that you, the brave defenders of the American people, will have the necessary tools and rules of engagement to make this strategy work, and work effectively and work quickly”).  Again, this has been a long-standing request from the military and a complaint against political interference in the conduct of war that dates back to the Vietnam War and President Johnson’s insistence on approving bombing targets in North Vietnam.  These restrictions exist because there is a clear political dimension to military actions, and protecting civilians is a top priority for those who wish to gain the support of a local population.  Perhaps there is no longer a divide between civilian and military authorities on the importance of this consideration, but it it not observed, as some have argued in the case of the use of drones, then “winning” a war is hopeless.

The speech does not give me much hope for a resolution in Afghanistan.  The New York Times is reporting that Mr. Trump is thinking about sending 4,000 more soldiers to supplement the 8,400 that are already there.  But that number does not include the close to 24,000 private contractors in the country.  We should not forget that there were close to 100,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan in 2011 and they were unable to accomplish the objectives outlined by President Trump.  It also appears that US Secretary of State Tillerson also shares doubts about the possibility of President Trump reaching his objectives.  The day after President Trump’s speech, Mr. Tillerson gave this message to the Taliban: “You will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you.”

 

Posted August 22, 2017 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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