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

 



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Sep 11th 2021
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Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Is it not extraordinary that in a country that claims to be as enlightened and advanced as ours, the combined wealth of three individuals – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and investor Warren Buffett – exceeds the total wealth of the bottom half of Americans? One has to return to the days of the pharaohs of Egypt to find a parallel to the extreme wealth inequality that we see in in America today." ...... "The top tax rate remained above 90 percent through the 1950s and did not dip below 70 percent until 1981. At no point during the decades that saw America’s greatest economic growth did the tax on the wealthy drop below 70 percent. Today it is somewhere around 37 percent. President Biden’s American Families Plan would increase the top tax rate to 39.6 percent – a fairly modest alteration, albeit in the right direction. It is true that there was a time when the top marginal tax was even lower than it is today: in the years leading up to the Great Depression it hovered around 25 percent."
Sep 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "But Biden can’t be blamed for the rise of the Taliban, or the fragile state of a country that has seen far too many wars and invasions. The US should not have been there in the first place, but that is a lesson that great powers never seem to learn."
Sep 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "The world is only starting to grapple with how profound the artificial-intelligence revolution will be. AI technologies will create waves of progress in critical infrastructure, commerce, transportation, health, education, financial markets, food production, and environmental sustainability. Successful adoption of AI will drive economies, reshape societies, and determine which countries set the rules for the coming century." ----- "AI will reorganize the world and change the course of human history. The democratic world must lead that process."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Although the Fed is considering tapering its quantitative easing (QE), it will likely remain dovish and behind the curve overall. Like most central banks, it has been lured into a “debt trap” by the surge in private and public liabilities (as a share of GDP) in recent years. Even if inflation stays higher than targeted, exiting QE too soon could cause bond, credit, and stock markets to crash. That would subject the economy to a hard landing, potentially forcing the Fed to reverse itself and resume QE." ---- "After all, that is what happened between the fourth quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, following the Fed’s previous attempt to raise rates and roll back QE."
Sep 1st 2021
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Aug 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, they have focused on their agenda, which is totally misguided—not by our own account but by the account of the majority of the American population, who view the Republican party as one that has lost its moral footing to the detriment of America’s future generations, who must now inherit the ugly consequences of a party that ran asunder."
Aug 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "Now that so many sad truths about Afghanistan are being spoken aloud, even in the major media – let me add one more: The war, from start to finish, was about politics, not in Afghanistan but in the United States. Afghanistan was always a sideshow."--- "....the 2001 invasion was fast and apparently decisive. And so it rescued George W. Bush’s tainted presidency,..." --- "Bush’s approval shot up to 90% and then steadily declined,..."
Aug 17th 2021
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Aug 6th 2021
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Jul 27th 2021
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Jul 25th 2021
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Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "The EU’s ambitious unilateral climate strategy will transform Europe into a trade fortress, encourage green protectionism worldwide, and give other regions the opportunity to develop using cheaper energy. And without China, India, and the United States on board, other countries will be careful not to follow the EU in its self-appointed role as the world’s green guinea pig. If Europe is not careful, it will risk finding itself in a climate club of one. "
Jul 9th 2021
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Jul 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " .... while China’s leaders never mention it, they are just as embittered over Russia’s theft of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century as they are over the West’s imperial predations. With Western imperialism having been largely rolled back, it is Russia’s continued occupation of historic Chinese territory that stands out the most to ordinary Chinese observers. For example, the city of Vladivostok, with its vast naval base, has been a part of Russia only since 1860, when the tsars built a military harbor there. Before that, the city was known by the Manchu name of Haishenwai." ---- "There is also a demographic argument for Putin to consider: the six million Russians spread along the Siberian border face 90 million Chinese on the other side. And many of these Chinese regularly cross the border into Russia to trade (and a good number to stay)."
Jul 7th 2021
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Jul 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "When former Fed Chair Paul Volcker hiked rates to tackle inflation in 1980-82, the result was a severe double-dip recession in the United States and a debt crisis and lost decade for Latin America. But now that global debt ratios are almost three times higher than in the early 1970s, any anti-inflationary policy would lead to a depression, rather than a severe recession. ---- Under these conditions, central banks will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and many governments will be semi-insolvent and thus unable to bail out banks, corporations, and households. The doom loop of sovereigns and banks in the eurozone after the global financial crisis will be repeated worldwide, sucking in households, corporations, and shadow banks as well. ---- As matters stand, this slow-motion train wreck looks unavoidable."
Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "