The Need to Define 'Winning' in Afghanistan
Trump lays out a plan to escalate the fight, but without fully explaining our objectives.
Last week, in a packed Conmy Hall at Joint Base Myer-Henderson, President Donald Trump made his long-awaited announcement about the United States’ future role in Afghanistan.
After hearing Trump’s remarks, we’re heartened by a few of his comments. First, it was good to finally hear Trump acknowledge that making life and death decisions about national security issues as president is a lot different than following his instincts as a private citizen. While some may see this as a low bar to clear, it is still significant to note because it shows Trump publicly acknowledging the gravity of the office he holds.
Second, he made a clear distinction about separating his administration from his predecessor when he articulated that his national security team will be focused on implementing a conditions-based approach rather than a strict timeline. This significant deviation from the previous administration is a positive first step in sending a message to the Afghan government, as well as to the governments of Pakistan, Iran and Russia, that America is committed to fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida, now and in the future.
However, after ruminating on his speech the next day and examining the transcripts, we recalled the lyrics to “We Won’t Get Fooled Again,” penned by Pete Townshend of The Who. The last two lines of that song, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” perfectly encapsulates Trump’s failure, much like Barack Obama, to set the strategic context of America’s future involvement in Afghanistan.
As we wrote a few weeks ago, the purpose of war is to serve national-interest objectives and Trump failed to articulate that in his speech. He said, “Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win.”
But what does that mean?
Many years ago, the famed military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote, “We see, therefore, that war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.” In other words, wars are meant to further political goals, not just kill bad guys.
When President Trump says we aren’t nation-building, he is missing the point of our presence in the region. In order for any country to function, it must have institutions that cater to the needs of the populace. The reason why any state becomes a safe haven for terrorists, from Somalia to Yemen to Afghanistan, is because of the central government’s inability to serve the people. Like it or not, by committing more American troops to Afghanistan, Trump is implicitly nation-building.
Which made Trump’s conspicuous omission in his speech about the role of his State Department in Afghanistan more troubling. While he did state, “A fundamental pillar of our new strategy is the integration of all instruments of American power: diplomatic, economic and military,” he never elaborated about how his administration will fuse these efforts into one cohesive strategy.
And that is a major problem with Trump’s speech, and by extension, his policy for the region. There are no clear-cut objectives. That ambiguity may serve to keep jihadis off balance, but it doesn’t help our nation commit to win.
While Trump talks about “winning,” his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is saying that U.S. efforts are “intended to put pressure on the Taliban to have the Taliban understand you will not win a battlefield victory.” Yet he added, “We may not win one, but neither will you.”
Talk about mixed messages.
If President Trump wants to be serious about American efforts in Afghanistan and South Asia, he needs to oversee a series of measures that should be a combination of pragmatism and resolve.
He and his team need to make a case about why we need to stay involved in the region. They need to explain to the American people, and the rest of the world, why the United States is committed to this fight and why it’s in our best interests to continue pouring blood and treasure into this part of the world.
As America begins its 16th year of war in Afghanistan this fall, it’s time to reflect upon what has been accomplished and what still needs to be achieved. President Trump has the chance to make a difference but only time will tell if he is serious about committing the vast resources and leadership needed to achieve success on the ground.