President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt said famously “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
Last night in his speech in announcing a new Afghanistan policy, President Donald J. Trump spoke loudly but carried a stack of kindling.
The goal for America in Afghanistan is to end our longest war. We could just leave, pull out “lock stock and barrel.” But the result for Afghanistan and our own security interests in Southeast Asia and the world might well be disastrous. The Soviet Union just pulled out of Afghanistan after ten years of un-successful occupation of the Country, but that didn’t matter for the Soviet Union; it was already on the brink of extinction.
So what is our new policy, as the president put it last night, to “secure an honorable and enduring win? Ah, the phrase “peace with honor” has a familiar ring to it for those who remember America’s withdrawal from Vietnam.
Let us start with the clichés. Said President Trump at various points in his speech:
-“The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory. They deserve the tools they need and the trust they have earned to fight and to win.”
-“…we will push onward to victory.”
-“…and in the end we will win.”
Fair enough. But every coherent policy stems from a realistic definition of the goal. What is “victory,” what is “winning” for the United States in Afghanistan? The answer from the president depends on which of several conflicting and contradictory lines of his speech you read.
President Trump said:
-“As I outlined in my speech in Saudi Arabia three months ago, America and our partners are committed to stripping terrorists of their territory….In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear. We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America…”
-“Afghanistan is fighting to defend and secure their country against the same enemies who threaten us.”
Okay, but consider: Who are the “terrorists,” the “enemies” in Afghanistan that we must then fight and achieve the victory over?
Principally, they are the Taliban, an ultra-right Muslim religious organization of some thirty five thousand (estimate) native Afghans, not some invading force of outsiders. In fact, in 1996, the Taliban overthrew the then Afghan Government and ruled the country under strict Shira law until in the aftermath of 9/11, we and our allies pushed them out. They have been in military opposition to the Afghan government ever since; their goal is to re-establish their position as the Government of the country. That sounds like a civil war (and we know what a civil war is). In fact, the Taliban has never been officially classified, designated, or listed as a terrorist organization, but rather as armed insurgents.
So, is “winning” a complete destruction on the battlefield of the Taliban – kill, imprison. expel or “re-educate” them all – in the name of safe guarding the present Government which is not a threat to us while a second Taliban Government might be? The logic of the president’s argument of the threat would seem to suggest that should be the goal, that should be our the policy.
But, no, listen to President Trump in another part of his speech.
“Ultimately, it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future, to govern their society and to achieve an everlasting peace. We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society. We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” The president even suggested at another point that perhaps someday the Taliban would have a place in a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan without having to change their stripes.
Okay, which is it? Is it destroying the Taliban as the “terrorists “or is it really not dictating to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society. If only the Taliban was some rag-tag group of murderers (“terrorists”) or a non-native group of invaders trying to bring a strange religion or ideology to Afghanistan, then fighting them to victory might make sense and might be an achievable goal. But in examining the real situation in Afghanistan, do we not hear the echo of our great mistake called Vietnam?
In Vietnam we attempted to “defeat the enemy” of a South Vietnamese Government there friendly to us (which we had established in 1954). But the “enemy” were indigenousness Vietnamese who had a different philosophy of government (communism) and who, with the vital help of their kinsmen in North Vietnam, waged war against the established Government of South Viet Nam and us. We know how that turned out.
In his speech President Trump tried to have it both ways when it came to the present Government of Afghanistan. He said:
-“America will work with the Afghan Government as long as we see determination and progress. However, our commitment is not unlimited and our support is not a blank check.”
-“…the American people expect to see real reforms, real progress and real results. “Our patience in not unlimited, We will keep our eyes open…”
Now, one of the problems has been that Afghan Governments since 9/11 have been corrupt, unable to Govern effectively because of tribal fiefdoms, whose army, while composed of brave men, has been undertrained and badly led. As we work harder to help the Government overcome these difficult, often seemingly intractable problems, when will our “patience” run out and our “not unlimited commitment” end? In other words, how long will we keep at it?
President Trump wisely didn’t say as long as it takes but, then, how long?
Consider: President Trump made a big point that we would no longer announce time tables for withdrawal but instead (although he didn’t use the exact words of the saying) just ”play it as it lays,” meaning changing tactics and troop levels as the situation changes on the ground. That makes sense, of course, as long as you know what “success” looks like and are willing to keep at it until that “success” is achieved.
Here, the president seems to be signaling that we’re with you as long as it’s working but if it isn’t (and certainly, we’ll say that’s your fault), well, “see you around.” Now if the idea of not setting public time tables for withdrawal is predicated on not letting the “enemy” feel that he can just wait us out knowing how long he has to wait, what do you think the president’s stated view that we are there unless it isn’t working does? Why, the enemy will just keep pounding until the United States loses that “patience” for that “committment that is not unlimited.”
In fact, in Vietnam we never announced a timetable for complete withdrawal but the communist enemies just kept driving until our Ambassador to South Vietnam got on the helicopter from our Embassy with the American flag clutched to his breast and there was no more South Vietnam.
And just as North Vietnam fueled the insurgency in South Vietnam, the president said correctly that Pakistan is fueling the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
So, he threatened Pakistan.
He said: “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change. And that will change immediately.” No details given of how Pakistan will be forced to change.
Good luck. A Country that felt safe in sheltering America’s arch enemy Osama bin Laden and paid no price for having done so, probably won’t tremble under the president’s bluster.
Yes, the speech, the announced “change in policy” to “win,” was an incoherent jumble but it would take a hard heart indeed not to have some sympathy for President Trump in this matter.
Mr. Trump is correct when he said that when he became president he was given a bad and very complex hand. Certainly, his predecessors, George W Bush and Barack Obama, didn’t figure it out. Although I doubt it, maybe just “muddling through” will work.
President Trump sounded a typical note of optimism that he can do it. He said: “I’m a problem solver. In the end we will win.”
We like optimistic doctors and optimistic presidents.
But, like his predecessors, he hasn’t figured out what “winning” is or how to do it, even though he boasted (again, in typical fashion) that he had studied Afghanistan “in great detail and from every conceivable angle.”
His study is incomplete.
He said, quote: “As the prime minister of Afghanistan has promised, we are going to participate in economic development to help defray the cost of this war to us.”
There is no “prime minister” in Afghanistan, only a President.