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

Dec 13th 2019
EXTRACT: "In previous British elections, to say that trust was the main issue would have meant simply that trust is the trump card – whichever leader or party could secure most trust would win. Now, the emerging question about trust is whether it even matters anymore."
Dec 5th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe must fend for itself for the first time since the end of World War II. Yet after so many years of strategic dependence the US, Europe is unprepared – not just materially but psychologically – for today’s harsh geopolitical realities. Nowhere is this truer than in Germany."
Nov 23rd 2019
Extdact: "The kind of gratitude expressed by Vindman and my grandfather is not something that would naturally occur to a person who can take his or her nationality for granted, or whose nationality is beyond questioning by others. Some who have never felt the sharp end of discrimination might even find it mildly offensive. Why should anyone be grateful for belonging to a particular nation? Pride, perhaps, but gratitude? In fact, patriotism based on gratitude might be the strongest form there is."
Nov 20th 2019
Extract: "Moody’s, one of the big three credit rating agencies, is not upbeat about the prospects for the world’s debt in 2020 – to put it mildly. If we were to try to capture the agency’s view of where we are heading on a palette of colours, we would be pointing at black – pitch black."
Nov 17th 2019
Extract: "Digital money is already a key battleground in finance, with technology firms, payment processing companies, and banks all vying to become the gateway into the burgeoning platform-based economy. The prizes that await the winners could be huge. In China, Alipay and WeChat Pay already control more than 90% of all mobile payments. And in the last three years, the four largest listed payment firms – Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and PayPal – have increased in value by more than the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google)."
Nov 14th 2019
Extract: "Trump, who understands almost nothing about governing, made a major mistake in attacking career public officials from the outset of his presidency. He underestimated – or just couldn’t fathom – the honor of people who could earn more in the private sector but believe in public service. And he made matters worse for himself as well as for the government by creating a shadow group – headed by the strangely out-of-control Rudy Giuliani, once a much-admired mayor of New York City, and now a freelance troublemaker serving as Trump’s personal attorney – to impose the president’s Ukraine policy over that of “the bureaucrats.” "
Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.
Oct 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "......let’s see what happens when we have less money for all the things we want to do as a country and as individuals. Promises and predictions regarding Brexit will soon be tested against reality. When they are, I wouldn’t want to be one of Johnson’s Brexiteers."
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."
Oct 20th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe also stands to lose from Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. If, in the ongoing chaos, the thousands of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces escape – as some already have – America’s estranged European allies will suffer. Yet Trump is unconcerned. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” he remarked casually at a press conference. “They want to go back to their homes." "
Oct 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress – including the Senate – to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question."
Oct 7th 2019
EXTRACT: "The problem didn't start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like a cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a "take no prisoners" mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of "the other side." Trump didn't create this crisis; he was the result of it.   When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then President Clinton, but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.  "
Oct 4th 2019
EXTRACT: "As the story spreads, it grows darker. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to learn the identity of the whistleblower (who is protected by law), which could expose that person to great danger. And he is accusing some people – including Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee – of treason. My sense is that Trump fears the tough, focused Schiff. Trump has ominously noted that traitors used to be shot or hanged. And he hasn’t helped himself with members of either party by declaring, in one of his hundreds of febrile tweets, that forcing him from office could lead to a “civil war.” Trump has taken the United States somewhere it’s never been before. His presidency may not survive it."
Sep 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "But regardless of whether the Ukraine scandal remains front-page news, it will haunt the US intelligence community, which has been Trump’s bête noire since the day he took office. Trump has relentlessly attacked US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and divulged secrets to foreign officials, potentially burning high-value sources. This behavior had already raised serious concerns about whether Trump can be trusted to receive sensitive intelligence at all. Now, intelligence leaders must ask themselves how far they are willing to go in toeing the White House line."
Sep 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "As Lobaczewski pointed out, pathological leaders tend to attract other people with psychological disorders. At the same time, empathetic and fair-minded people gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them.......As a result, over time pathocracies become more entrenched and extreme. You can see this process in the Nazi takeover of the German government in the 1930s, when Germany moved from democracy to pathocracy in less than two years.......In the US, there has clearly been a movement towards pathocracy under Trump. As Lobaczewski’s theory predicts, the old guard of more moderate White House officials – the “adults in the room” – has fallen away. The president is now surrounded by individuals who share his authoritarian tendencies and lack of empathy and morality. Fortunately, to some extent, the democratic institutions of the US have managed to provide some push back."
Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: "Reminiscent of Don Quixote, Trump is tilting at windmills. His administration is flailing at antiquated perceptions of the Old China that only compound the problems it claims to be addressing. Financial markets are starting to get a sense that something is awry. So, too, is the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the global economy is fraying at the edges. The US has never been an oasis in such treacherous periods. I doubt if this time is any different.