Donald Trump’s Yuge Disappointment on Afghanistan
Jacob Grandstaff, Foreign Policy Contributor
Opinion -- For sixteen long years, the United States military has occupied Afghanistan in its quest to ensure that no government there will ever again take root that would provide comfort and aid to a terrorist organization like Al Qaeda. After more than 2,400 lost lives and nearly a trillion dollars – withsome estimates running over $2 trillion – the American people elected a man to the presidency who unreservedly declared: “We are getting out of the nation-building business.” On August 21, President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would stay the course in Afghanistan reminded voters that the establishment isn’t yet whipped.
Trump’s original promise galvanized millions of traditional conservatives who long ago realized the Military-Industrial establishment had conned them by playing to their patriotism and desire to protect their country. That establishment then lead them on a weapons-of-mass destruction goose chase in Iraq and a colonial-lite occupation of Afghanistan with no end in sight.
Retired Colonel Douglas Macgregor summed up the expectations of many shortly before Trump gave his long-awaited address on Afghanistan, saying, “I think we’re going to watch Donald Trump transform in real time on television into Barack Obama.”
Trump did not disappoint.
For twenty-six minutes, the president tried to make the same case that Obama tried for eight years to make to the American people. The only thing Trump added that Obama would likely have omitted was the hawkish claim that “we are not nation-building again,” but rather killing terrorists. That might have been a real bell-ringer to the Gen Xers of the 2000s who were still scared of the big, bad, Muslim boogey men who “hate our freedoms,” but in 2017, most millennials aren’t buying it. Trump then proceeded to contradict himself with the following: “Military power alone will not bring peace to Afghanistan or stop the terrorist threat arising in that country. But, strategically applied force aims to create the conditions for a political process to achieve a lasting peace.”
If that doesn’t smell of nation-building, what does?
Trump’s admonition that the country seek first an “honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made” rings eerily familiar to Nixon’s urge for “peace with honor” approach to Vietnam.
When Obama entered office, he had promised to end the war in Iraq to focus on the country that made possible the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He followed through on that promise with renewed focus on Afghanistan and plans to draw down in 2014; like his Republican predecessor, Obama also failed to bring the occupation to a complete end. Trump entered with the expectation that he would form a speedy exit strategy for all American combat troops, without leaving a situation in which ISIS or another extremist organization could gain an easy foothold.
However, Trump’s closest generals, like National Security adviser, General H. R. McMaster, advised him to stay the course (see Einstein’s definition of insanity) despite opposition for withdrawal from Trump’s political base which has always focused more on problems directly affecting American citizens.
The rise of ISIS in Iraq shows that U.S. advisers cannot simply abandon Afghanistan entirely – at least not yet. The U.S. must continue the thankless task of training Afghan security forces, facilitating negotiations among the various factions, and providing a steady hand (occasionally air support) in the background to stabilize the country.
The proposal that Blackwater founder Erik Prince and others put to Trump’s administration provided the soundest formula to ensuring that more Afghans would to see their own government as an ally and friend and acquiesce to its authority. Under their proposal, the U.S. would have a few thousand highly skilled mercenaries that would train and equip the Afghans to secure their own country and root out remaining extremist cells. Such a proposal would have saved tens of billions of dollars and potentially, also the lives of American service men and women.
Furthermore, the government would have had the option of firing a company and replacing it with the half dozen or more private contractors that would gladly do it if the first company wasted taxpayers’ money. The government doesn’t have that option with the military, and it spends almost as much per year on occupying Afghanistan as the United Kingdom spends on its entire defense budget.
At this point, no one knows exactly how many additional thousands of American service men and women the government will ask to risk their lives to secure a country whose people hate their guts, or how many additional hundreds of billions of dollars the government will squeeze taxpayers for to continue funding the occupation. But, more importantly, Trump gave no guarantee that his successor will not have to give the same Obama/Trump speech on Afghanistan four or eight years in the future.
As it is apparent that the American voter has little say in his country’s foreign policy, one can only hope that Trump is doing this out of pure, political motivations and will bring the troops home after they’ve killed a few hundred more jihadis, so he can claim to have achieved his “peace for our time” …with honor.
Follow this author on Twitter: @JD_Grandstaff
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