Trump’s War

Earlier this week, we heard President Trump speak on the War in Afghanistan.  Unfortunately, this speech which was supposed to lay out his vision of the path forward was like many Trump speeches — mostly vague rhetoric without details.  And the handful of specific details were divorced from reality.

As we have come to expect from Trump, when faced with a  difficult issue, he has to blame his predecessors for not solving it.  While it is easy to blame the G.W. Bush Administration for botching the original intervention, Trump, of course, focused his wrath on President Obama.  One can debate whether the “tough love” of giving the Afghanistan government a deadline for getting its act together is better or worse than saying that we will transition out when the Afghanistan government gets its act together.  And despite Trump’s claim that we will not engage in “nation building,” it is difficult to see how we get the right “conditions” in Afghanistan without doing some form of nation building.

However, the first real problem in the speech was Trump’s refusal — in the name of not giving any information to the enemy — to say what our plans are in Afghanistan.  In particular, his refusal to define our goals in Afghanistan.  Saying that we will only withdraw once certain conditions are met is fine.  However, you need to define what those conditions are.  Of course, by not defining those conditions, Trump leaves the door open to the old Soviet approach of declaring victory at some point in the future even though we have actually failed to meet our goals — whatever they actually are.

The other problem was his references to the role of two of the key regional actors — Pakistan and India.  In his speech, Trump implied an ultimatum to Pakistan — either stop support for the Taliban or we will cut aid to Pakistan.  While all Americans wish that Pakistani intelligence would cut its support for the Taliban and that Pakistan would assist us in eliminating terrorist havens along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and in the tribal region of Pakistan, this ultimatum ignores two facts — one, Pakistan is mostly a democracy; and two, there are other issues on which we want Pakistan’s cooperation.

Because Pakistan is a democracy, the government has to worry about how its policies will appear to voters.  And there is some sympathy among Pakistani voters for the Taliban.  Additionally, the intelligence service has some desire to have control over the actors in Afghanistan politics.  While we may not like the Taliban, Pakistan does not have the same view of the Taliban as long as the Taliban does not support any terrorism in Pakistan.

More importantly, the question is how much bang we can expect to get for our buck with Pakistan.    The U.S. gives around 4 billion dollars to Pakistan every year.  That sounds like a lot until you look at Pakistan’s population.  On a per capita basis, that works out to around 20 dollars per Pakistani.  How much cooperation can one expect to buy for 20 dollars.  And we have more concerns with Pakistan than just fighting terrorism.  Pakistan is a nuclear country.  So for that 20 dollars, we want Pakistan to not aid other countries in developing nuclear weapons and we want them to de-escalate tensions with their neighbors, primarily India which also has a nuclear weapon.

With India, again India is a democracy.  So what it will be willing to do will depend on domestic politics.  It was unclear from Trump’s speech whether Trump is asking for India to take a leadership role in South Asia or if Trump is asking for India to kick in money.  If he is asking for India to expand its role in South Asia, Pakistan will not like that.  Since there founding in the 1940s, India and Pakistan have been engaged in a cold war that sometimes break it in fighting.  The border between those two countries is not quite settled as the partition of the British colony into those two countries included some territories in which the final status was “to be settled” and never has been.  An attempt by India to play a role in Afghanistan will be seen by Pakistan as interfering in a Pakastani sphere of influence.  And if the U.S. is asking for money for India to cover the expense of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the odds of that happening are about the same as Mexico paying for Trump’s wall.

The bottom line is that the U.S. has already lost a lot of troops being the latest in a long-line of countries that have attempted to pacify Afghanistan.  Trump’s speech represents an indefinite commitment of an indefinite number of troops for a poorly defined agenda.  It would be one thing if Trump had defined exactly what we are trying to achieve in Afghanistan and what conditions will allow us to begin drawing down our troops.  In the absence of a clear and achievable definition of victory, it looks like we are merely sending more troops until Trump gets tired of “losing” and simply declares that a horrendous failure was actually the greatest victory in the history of the U.S. military.  While the loss of troops in pursuit of clearly defined, necessary, and achievable goals is regrettable, the loss of lives for no good reason would be tragic.  The American people deserve something more than Trump’s blather before we go back into Afghanistan.


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