Last night’s major speech on Afghanistan from Donald Trump provided a reset to America’s longest war in some ways, and in others reflected the narrow options for the US after almost sixteen years. Former NATO chief James Stavridis told Mark Halperin on Morning Joe that Trump had three choices, none of which are good. Either we leave and let Afghanistan fall back into “ungoverned space,” massively escalate and go the Vietnam route, or reset with pretty much the resources in place. Stavridis saw a couple of reasons for optimism in Trump’s approach:
— Morning Joe (@Morning_Joe) August 22, 2017
The biggest contrast between Trump and Barack Obama is the removal of timelines for the mission, and a focus on “conditions-based” decisions. Announcing timelines for ending the US presence undermined our allies and emboldened our enemies, and was clearly aimed at domestic politics rather than the mission. It would have eventually resulted in the same full-withdrawal scenario outcome Stavridis describes, the Saigon helicopter evacuation as the nation falls to its enemies — only this time to an enemy with ties to radical Islamic terrorism.
The inclusion of India in the mix seems more risky. It will definitely put pressure on Pakistan, but that in itself is a roll of the dice. If we anger the Pakistanis too much, we might find our lines of communication cut off entirely and tip Pakistan toward the radicals who hate India. It might be a game changer in ways that we won’t much like, both in Afghanistan and globally against Islamist terror. As long as India’s assistance remains in the sphere of “economic assistance and development,” it may not be a problem, but Pakistan has long accused Afghanistan’s current government of colluding with India against them.
A third point not mentioned by Stavridis in this clip should get a little more attention — changes to the rules of engagement. ” I have already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our war fighters that prevented the secretary of defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy,” Trump stated, adding, “Micromanagement from Washington, D.C., does not win battles.” That’s not entirely new; we have already seen the changes in the field, most dramatically with the dropping of the Massive Ordinance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb in April. Still, Trump made it explicit, and that matters.
That declaration, along with the dropping of timelines, sends a clear message that while we’re not going to stage a massive invasion, the forces we have there will fight rather than just manage. The two combined might get the Pashtuns/Taliban to reconsider their reluctance to negotiate a settlement to the war.
Addendum: Trump’s speech turned out largely how Andrew Malcolm predicted.