Trump’s Confused and Troubling Afghanistan Speech

This article originally appeared on this site.

One of the many confused aspects of the Afghanistan war-expansion plan that President Donald Trump announced on Monday night—which lacked basic details, most notably the number of American lives it might involve—was the geography. In specifying the reasons for military action in Afghanistan, he cited battles fought in Iraq and, notably, the perfidy of Pakistan, which had “sheltered” terrorist networks. Indeed, there were junctures at which he could have been laying out the rationale for military action in Pakistan or elsewhere. After questioning Pakistan’s “commitment to civilization,” he said that, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, “we must stop the resurgence of save havens” and “prevent nuclear weapons from coming into the hands of terrorists”—a possibility specific to Pakistan, which has more than a hundred nuclear bombs within reach of a military whose officers often have dubious allegiances. (Afghanistan has no such weapons.) Trump continued, “To prosecute this war, we will learn from history.” Perhaps he will, but could Americans at least have learned, from his speech, which country, or countries, he plans to wage “this war” in?

Not, it seems, if Trump has anything to do with it. The entire speech was a tirade against boundaries and borders and the systems of accountability that are meant to keep America from getting involved in unending wars conducted in manners that later make us ashamed. Its most extraordinary line may have come as he described how American strategy “in Afghanistan and South Asia” will “dramatically change” in the coming days: “We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.” There are, in any war, secret deployments and operations, but Trump is enshrining the idea of secret wars, with secretly mustered armies. In briefings to reporters, various Administration officials have mentioned deploying four thousand additional troops, with the intimation that there were generals who wanted Trump to send more. He has made it easy for that number to be elastic, and to stretch without public restraint.

His plan for the war, on a tactical level, is to hand it over to “wartime commanders”—a striking phrase. “Micromanagement from Washington, D.C., does not win battles,” Trump said. But differentiating between the micro and the macro has never been one of Trump’s strengths. And a lack of leadership, including moral leadership, can lose not only battles but wars. Trump said that he had already “lifted restrictions” on what troops could do in the field, and would lift more, so that they had ever greater power to act “in real time, with real authority.” It is hard to know exactly what this will mean, given that American forces already have a great deal of leeway. A certain number of restraints involve concern for the lives of civilians. Even with those now in place, there have been incidents like the American air strike, in 2015, that hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing forty-two people and cutting off access to medical care for many more. If Trump cannot see how these are not only tragedies but moments that turn populations against the United States, we may see a very long war get longer and more brutal.

He does not see it, as far as one can tell from his speech. He spent a good deal of it deriding the idea that we would ask anything of our allies other than that they deliver “victories.” And give us money: he bragged about how much he had gotten out of NATO, and said that the point of economic development in Afghanistan should be “to help defray the cost of this war to us.” He added, “We will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live, or how to govern their own complex society. We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” And: “We are not asking others to change their way of life.” There is an argument for moving away from “nation-building,” but jettisoning standards of governance entirely, when coupled with an open-ended military commitment, can be disastrous. Afghanistan’s corruption is not an abstract matter for moralists. It is one of the reasons for the waste of American resources that were sent, supposedly, to train the Afghan military. In some cases, Afghan commanders submitted fake tallies of soldiers and then pocketed their salaries, which the U.S. paid; in January, a few days before Trump’s Inauguration, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon was working to remove thirty thousand suspected “ghost soldiers” from the rolls, as part of an anti-corruption drive. Is that the sort of namby-pamby effort that Trump wants to abandon?

Trump, in explaining his secrecy, repeated another of the complaints that he made regularly on the campaign trail: that President Obama, in setting a target date for an end of major American troop commitments in Afghanistan, was just telegraphing to the Taliban forces how long they had to hold out. But Obama’s intended audience for that deadline, as he had made clear in his own speech on sending more troops to Afghanistan, in December, 2009, was the Afghan government: it was the mechanism for holding its members accountable, for pushing them to get beyond the contemplation of what could be done with the current supply of American forces and cash. What Trump has substituted is “a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions.” But when and how will those conditions be met—and on what battleground? For example, Pakistan is a problem—one Obama spoke about, too—and has acted badly, but it’s not clear how Trump will fix that by saying, as he did in the speech, that he wants to draw India further into Afghanistan.

“Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win,” Trump said, as if that explained it all. He continued, “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 second and third of those items have some semblance of clarity, and could in theory be the basis of a renewed counterterrorism initiative. But, aside from the broad scope suggested by the goal of stopping future “mass terror” attacks, which can be planned from anywhere, there is the question of whom Trump numbers among our “enemies.” At home and abroad, the list seems to expand with his temper and the shift of his attention.

And by what authority would he be acting? There was no call, in Trump’s speech, for any sort of action or affirmation by Congress. In Obama’s 2009 speech, he cited, in addition to various treaties and international resolutions, Congress’s 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against Al Qaeda and its “associated forces,” which was passed three days after the September 11th attacks. The language of the A.U.M.F. is vague enough for it to have been invoked as the legal basis for actions in Libya and Syria. Its continued use in Afghanistan makes more sense, or would if there were any delineation of the mission there. Congress, which is supposed to declare wars, bears a great deal of responsibility for this continued open-endedness. People in both parties have realized for years that the evolution of the A.U.M.F. into, essentially, a multi-country war pass is a problem, but they haven’t really done anything about it. Trump said, “These killers need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might and Americans arms.” It is worth asking if he imagines that there is any place beyond the reach of his current, unaugmented authority to wage a protracted war. In the short run, he and Obama may end up with similar troop levels, but the two men differ in their commitment to specificity and accountability, which often determines the course that a war takes.

Trump’s adoption of the policy is, to some extent, a sign of the influence of the military men around him. It is tempting to see it as a victory for H. R. McMaster, his national-security adviser (who, according to the Washington Post, persuaded Trump that Afghanistan had potential with the help of “a black-and-white snapshot from 1972 of Afghan women in miniskirts walking through Kabul”), and a setback for some allies of Steve Bannon. But Trump is still Trump, whoever is around him. In that sense, the least interesting aspect of the speech was his acknowledgment that he has sometimes sounded like an isolationist who wanted to ditch the whole Afghanistan project: “My original instinct was to pull out—and, historically, I like following my instincts.” (That line, and one in which he got to call terrorists “losers,” may have been meant as light, self-aware touches in a leaden speech; they didn’t work.) In truth, Trump has never been consistent about that (or anything), and has regularly coupled his declarations of being done with Afghans and other foreigners with complaints about the failure to seize their military wealth, to bomb them with sufficient vigor, or to be ready to torture the prisoners that conflicts yield. Trump may not conceive of himself as an interventionist, but he has always been an adventurist. Now he has generals, and now he wants to fight.