Sep 2nd 2017

Trump and Afghanistan: Old Problems and New Dangers

by David Coates

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies

Keeping track of important policy developments with Donald J. Trump as President is difficult and yet vital. There is so much noise and distraction surrounding everything that the current President does, and such a perplexing mixture of bombast and bigotry in so much of what he says, that the important things going on quietly behind the scenes can so easily fall off our collective political radar.

One such development which that radar briefly picked up was the content of what the President called on August 21st “our path forward in Afghanistan and South Asia.” At least he did give a public address on this, mapping out – if only in rather general terms – his thinking on what that path should be, a public address that was carried by the networks during prime time.[1] So, some at least of the foreign policy thinking going on quietly behind the scenes did briefly surface in late August. But it was a surfacing that was sandwiched between two controversial presidential statements on the events in Charlottesville – statements which understandably then received far more attention and analysis in the national and international media than did Trump’s public ruminations on how he plans to bring America’s longest-running war to a successful conclusion.

I

That lack of follow-up and attention is a pity, for when addressing the nation from Fort Myer in Arlington, Donald J. Trump said at least three things that should give us all cause for concern. He said:

·         “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists…. From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.”

·         “The consequences of rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable…. A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill…. We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq…. However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check.”

·         “Our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifice of lives.”

The problem with the first of those three statements is that the United States cannot hope to succeed by killing terrorists – even if somehow that is how success is to be measured – if in pursuing them, America’s military endeavors so destroy the fabric of the society in which those terrorists operate that, unless nation-building rapidly follows, the number of new terrorists available to be killed will grow rather than diminish. “As we lift restrictions and expand authorities in the field,” Donald J. Trump told his Fort Myer audience, “we are already seeing dramatic results in the campaign to defeat ISIS, including the liberation of Mosul in Iraq. Since my inauguration, we have achieved record-breaking success in that regard.” Really? Has the President actually seen the pictures of liberated Mosul? That liberation came at the cost of the near-total destruction of whole areas of the city and was accompanied by heavy civilian casualties. “According to the UN, half of the old city of Mosul, and a third of the old city of Aleppo, in Syria, are [now] rubble.”[2] The liberation of Mosul also came with a predictable consequence – the shift in ISIS’s focus away from holding onto territory in Iraq towards one of random destruction in European cities. The bombs are flying everywhere. American ones from the sky. Terrorist ones from cars and trucks loaded with explosives; and in the process, though terrorists are no doubt dying in considerable numbers, so also are the innocents. How long, therefore, is it going to take this new Administration to realize that, by bombing terrorists from the sky, the American military breeds them faster than they kill them? How long before this Administration realizes that its ramping up of military operations “across the greater Middle East…more troops, more bombs, more missions” will stumble us, not into a permanent peace, but rather into “another decade of war”?[3]

The problem with the second of the three key Trump assertions – that the origins of what he called the “bad and very complex hand” left to him by his predecessor rested in the Obama strategy of withdrawing troops on pre-specified deadlines – is this. The origins of the “bad and complex hand” that he inherited lie far further back than that. They lie in the decision by Obama’s predecessor as president, George W. Bush, to turn a war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan into one against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, a decision now widely recognized to have been a huge foreign policy blunder, and one that fundamentally destabilized the very region that the original invasion of Afghanistan was meant to avoid. Donald Trump would do well to remember that he is not the first modern president to be dealt a “bad and complex hand.” During the Obama presidency, troops eventually left Iraq at the behest of the Iraqi government, not the American one, in an agreement signed with the Bush Administration before Obama took office. And signed with a weak and corrupt (though formally democratically-elected) Iraqi government whose contemporary Afghan equivalent is now being told by Donald J. Trump that the United States will ultimately leave it to its fate if it fails to deliver what he termed “real reforms, real progress, and real results.” “Our patience is not unlimited. We will keep our eyes wide open,” he said. So, is the Obama strategy of withdrawing US troops to pre-specified deadlines” really off the table, or is it not? It was off the table on page 2 of the Fort Myer speech, but was apparently back on again by page 4.

The problem with the third assertion – that we cannot settle for anything less than an “honorable and enduring outcome” because of the deaths already of so many American military personnel in this 16-year long war – is that setting the bar that high commits us to a steady re-engagement with the whole Afghan conundrum. It commits us to policies that guarantee that more American lives will be lost, and to policies that lock America into a condition of permanent war. The President promised his military audience at Fort Myer that his Administration would provide more spending, more equipment, and more autonomy for commanders on the ground: as though the reason the war has dragged on for 16 years is that the American military effort within it has been systematically-underfunded and politically over-controlled for too long. But none of that is true – and pretending that it is true can only bring greater loss of life to US military personnel and Afghan civilians alike. And if the new thinking – the bit that is really new – is that the Taliban resurgence is really the product of covert long-term Pakistani support that now needs to be challenged, then the logic of the President’s August argument is truly terrifying: a widening of the Afghan war into one with/within nuclear-armed Pakistan itself, to guarantee that the death toll will include Pakistanis in large numbers, and not just Americans and Afghanis.

 

II

In saner and more-subtle political hands, maybe some of this could be discretely transformed into a policy of incremental withdrawal from a war that is proving unwinnable in a country whose geography and internal politics have defeated empires before. But we currently don’t have those saner and more-subtle political hands in charge.

Instead, we have a president who, as a candidate, claimed to have a secret and definitive plan for rapid success against ISIS – a plan better than any generated by the generals – one so brilliant indeed that he wouldn’t go into any details of its content before its deployment.[4] Well, that turned out to be an entirely specious claim, did it not: one that now has been fully exposed by a president who would appear currently to be entirely in the hands of his generals, and not just on foreign policy matters alone.[5] And of course, we also have a president who, when a candidate, proposed the blanket bombing of parts of Iraq,[6] and the return to the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture by the CIA and US military.[7] The great fear has to be, therefore, that as the months pass and the Afghan impasse continues, this president will go for an ever-heavier military deployment in Afghanistan; and if he does that, that whatever vestigial electoral credibility he by then possesses will be entirely eroded. For as he also told his Fort Myer audience, “the American people are weary of war without victory.” They are “frustrated over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money and most importantly lives, trying to rebuild countries in our own image, instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations.”[8] Yet that rebuilding in our own image is precisely what Donald J. Trump’s “path forward in Afghanistan” will continue. What else are we to understand “real reforms, real progress, and real results” to mean?

When we are making the list of the many reasons that buyers’ remorse needs to settle in around this President, the better to remove him quickly from office, his new Afghan policy should be high on the ledger. It should be marked there as one serious item among many – serious items that together are making this presidency not simply distasteful but dangerous![9]

[10]

First posted, with full academic citations, at www.davidcoates.net

See also David Coates, America in the Shadow of Empires. New York, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2015.

 



[3] Fareed Zakaria, ‘The United States is stumbling into another decade of war,” The Washington Post, June 22, 2017: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/the-united-states-is-stumbling-into-another-decade-of-war/2017/06/22/7cd589f2-5796-11e7-a204-ad706461fa4f_story.html?utm_term=.874a0b28bf87

 

[4] Alexandra Rosenmann, Here Are 10 of Trump’s Biggest Foreign Policy Idiocies So Far. Posted on Alternet.org, April 27, 2016: available at http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/here-are-10-trumps-biggest-foreign-policy-blunders-so-far

 

[5] Robert Costa and Philip Rucker, “Military leaders consolidate power in Trump administration,” The Washington Post, August 22, 2017: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/military-leaders-consolidate-power-in-trump-administration/2017/08/22/db4f7bee-875e-11e7-a94f-3139abce39f5_story.html?utm_term=.7d338b586e3c

 

[6] Miranda Katz et al, “’Kill people and break things’: the very best of the first GOP presidential debate,” The Nation, August 7, 2015, available at https://www.thenation.com/article/kill-people-and-break-things-the-very-best-of-the-first-gop-presidential-debate/

 

[7] Rebecca Gordon, “American presidential candidates are now openly promising to commit war crimes,” The Nation, January 7, 2016, available at https://www.thenation.com/article/american-presidential-candidates-are-now-openly-promising-to-commit-war-crimes/

 

[8] As note 1.

 

[9] Gideon Rachman, “America is now a dangerous nation,” The Financial Times, August 18, 2017: available at https://www.ft.com/content/308e0f90-80ce-11e7-94e2-c5b903247afd

 



Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "The facts are clear: the wealthiest 0.54%, about 40 million people, are responsible for 14% of lifestyle-related greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom 50% of income earners, almost 4 billion people, only emit around 10%. The world’s top 10% income earners are responsible for at least 25% and up to 43% of our environmental impact. Most people living in developed countries would fit into this category, meaning you don’t have to consider yourself rich in order to be globally affluent. Even many poorer people in wealthy countries have a disproportionately large and unsustainable resource footprint compared to the global average."
Jun 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "To be sure, the American Dream was always more aspiration than reality. Economic, social, and intergenerational mobility have always fallen short of what the myth of the self-made man or woman would lead one to expect. But with social mobility now declining as inequality rises, today’s young people are right to be angry."
Jun 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "There is only one way to repair America’s reputation, regain the trust of allies, and ensure that the US can act as an effective counterweight to China: address the root causes of the cracks that Trump’s disastrous presidency has exposed and widened. This is in line with the vision advanced in 2011 by two military strategists, Captain Wayne Porter and Colonel Mark Mykleby, using the pseudonym “Mr. Y.” Porter and Mykleby argued that national security depends not only on the capacity to respond to threats from foreign powers, but also – and perhaps more important – on the “application of credible influence and strength.” That influence, in turn, depends on America’s success in providing a “pathway of promise” for US citizens – and a model for the world."
Jun 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "The most critical question then is not how far Trump will go to promote his treasonous agenda, but for how long Republican leaders will silently accept and subserviently enable Trump to destroy the basic moral tenets and values on which this Union was founded, and which they swore to uphold and protect...............Of course, shame on us if we continue to be surprised by Republicans’ continuing silence, because as we all know, even when presented with overwhelming evidence that Trump committed crimes against the American people, Trump’s Republican stooges in the Senate exonerated him following impeachment almost unanimously...................The Republican leadership, to be sure, has made its bed. It has committed moral suicide. History will judge them harshly for their treason and betrayal of the nation, including all of those who have lived and died throughout our history to foster and protect our safety, integrity, and freedom."
Jun 9th 2020
EXTRACT: " Governments can do nothing about the quotidian offenses of living as a black person in America – the empty taxis that refuse to stop, being mistaken for employees in supermarkets, the myriad intentional and unintentional insults. Many now in the streets won’t be satisfied unless the result of this national spasm is improved schools, health care, and job opportunities for minorities – a fair shake for black people. What will happen when America once again falls short of honoring its professed values?."
Jun 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "It should be apparent to most observers of international relations that the Chinese government wants the world to play by its own set of rules. Beijing appears to believe that China’s rise and its assumption of global leadership positions are an inevitable extension of earlier periods in its history, when it was the world’s most powerful country. This is often at odds with the global norms that have been established – with China’s participation, it is worth adding – since the 1940s. While this is clearly the Chinese century, few outside of China would agree that Beijing’s global leadership is either inevitable or necessarily desired – certainly not on the Chinese government’s terms."
Jun 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "Many Americans are clearly horrified by their president’s crass and incendiary words. But will their disapproval be offset by anxiety about violent social unrest? Will age-old racial prejudices, often unspoken, or even acknowledged, still make them vote for the false security of a coarse white bully?  Much will depend on how hot this summer gets. If people think rationally in November, it is hard to imagine that enough of them would vote to keep this appalling administration in power for another four years. But fear is reason’s worst enemy."
Jun 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "For starters, many Americans have accepted that they live in a winner-takes-all society of deepening inequality. While the wealth and incomes of those at the very top continue to grow, tens of millions of Americans struggle to afford health care, childcare, and other basic goods. This story has been told many times over. But what often goes unremarked is that the responsibility for managing the social costs of this system has been offloaded onto the police."
May 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "Obamagate is the latest conspiracy theory to be pushed by US president, Donald Trump. It started on the morning of May 10, when Trump retweeted the word “OBAMAGATE!” By the next day, the Obamagate hashtag had accrued over two million tweets and another four million by the end of the week. Trump has repeatedly reused the slogan on his Twitter feed since and it has been promoted by right-wing influencers including Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and many others....You are not alone if you’re confused by what Obamagate actually is or why Trump is tweeting about it."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "Not all aspects of our near and medium-term future can be foreseen at this juncture of the Covid-19 pandemic, but we now know enough to make some hypotheses about what is likely to change, based on what has already changed. The future is sure to look very different than it did before this decade began, regardless of whether a vaccine is found. If a vaccine is found, it is unlikely to be tested, approved, manufactured, and efficiently distributed to the world’s population of nearly 8 billion people for years. Bearing in mind that there is no vaccine for any coronavirus, what is likelier is that the world will be living with Covid-19 as a part of our ecosystem for many years to come – possibly permanently. That means that our new normal is probably already here."
May 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "LONDON – The new Franco-German proposal for a €500 billion ($547 billion) European recovery fund could turn out to be the most important historic consequence of the coronavirus. It is even conceivable that the deal struck between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron might one day be remembered as the European Union’s “Hamiltonian moment,” comparable to the 1790 agreement between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson on public borrowing, which helped to turn the United States, a confederation with little central government, into a genuine political federation."
May 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "In April 2011, Donald Trump, then considering a run for the presidency the following year, said that he had sent investigators to Hawaii to check out rumors that President Barack Obama wasn’t born there, but in Kenya, which would disqualify him for the presidency. His investigators, Trump declared, “cannot believe what they’re finding.” I can find no record of Trump being challenged on this outlandish claim at the time. In the fall of 2016, Trump, now the Republican presidential nominee, was convinced by his staff that he had to abandon this “birther” nonsense. He did so reluctantly, charging – also with no evidence – that such rumors had actually been initiated by his opponent, Hillary Clinton. There, in a nutshell, is Trump’s modus operandi: he’s not just a liar but a fabulist, seemingly unconcerned with whether his fictions will be exposed. If they are, the world simply moves on as he invents fresh distractions."
May 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Li, a doctor, was purportedly silenced and chastised by Chinese officials for warning on December 30, 2019, about a new virus in the Wuhan hospital where he worked. When it became evident that he was on to something serious – so serious, in fact, that it ultimately killed him – the Chinese government changed its tune and celebrated Li’s bravery. If only that had happened sooner, the argument goes, the world would have avoided this horrific pandemic.................... But that’s not what happened."
May 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Jana Winter and Hunter Walker at Yahoo News broke the story that 11 Secret Service agents have tested positive for the coronavirus. Likely some of them served in the West Wing. This week it was revealed at that a US military valet who brought Trump food came down with the virus, sending Trump into a “lava level” rage. Two aides to Vice President Mike Pence have tested positive. Some observers are afraid that the virus is circulating in the West Wing itself."
May 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "There has been much debate around the world about the source of the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from a laboratory to Wuhan’s seafood market to some other form of animal-to-human transmission. While there is no proof (yet) that the virus may have been inadvertently released from one of the two biological research laboratories located at Wuhan, there is evidence that viral release has occurred in the past, and a host of additional data that point to a laboratory connection. "
May 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "A better bet is that nothing will be the same. Wealth will be destroyed on a catastrophic scale, and policymakers will need to find a way to ensure that, at least in some cases, creditors take part of the hit, a process that will play out over years of negotiation and litigation. For bankruptcy lawyers and lobbyists, it will be a bonanza, part of which will come from pressing taxpayers to honor bailout guarantees. Such a scenario would be an unholy mess."
Apr 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "We need the twenty-first century’s two superpowers, America and China, to set the example, by burying their rivalry and uniting all of humankind around a collective response to the current crisis, and to those that await us. As COVID-19 has taught us, the old international system can no longer guarantee humankind’s safety and security. We cannot afford to be taught that lesson twice."
Apr 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "It should come as no surprise that Trump has abused his power in orchestrating the federal response to the pandemic. For example, he made sure that Colorado received 100 much-needed ventilators, and made sure that Colorado voters knew it, in order to help re-elect troubled incumbent Republican senator Cory Gardner.  More alarming, Trump effectively threatened to wage germ warfare against US Postal Service workers by denying them congressionally approved virus-mitigation aid unless the USPS quadrupled rates on packages. Trump’s actual target was Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post."
Apr 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "These ten risks, already looming large before COVID-19 struck, now threaten to fuel a perfect storm that sweeps the entire global economy into a decade of despair. By the 2030s, technology and more competent political leadership may be able to reduce, resolve, or minimize many of these problems, giving rise to a more inclusive, cooperative, and stable international order. But any happy ending assumes that we find a way to survive the coming Greater Depression."
Apr 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Federal Reserve will buy unlimited quantities of Treasury bonds, the Bank of England will purchase £200 billion ($250 billion) of gilts, and the European Central Bank up to €750 billion ($815 billion) of eurozone bonds. Almost certainly, central banks will end up providing monetary finance to fund fiscal deficits. The only question is whether they should make that explicit."