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

Sep 27th 2020

NEW HAVEN – The US dollar has now entered the early stages of what looks to be a sharp descent. The dollar’s real effective exchange rate (REER) fell 4.3% in the four months ending in August.

Sep 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "Covid-19 essentially hit the “fast forward” button on emerging trends in a variety of sectors of national economies, hastening the demise of the shopping mall, laying bare how unnecessary being physically located in commercial work spaces is, and sounding the death knell for numerous 100+ year-old brands that had failed to adapt to the blistering pace of change in the digital economy. Failure to contemplate and embrace the future is leaving carnage in its wake.......The onslaught of dramatic change that has accompanied Covid-19 reminds us that fragile systems crack when exposed to unexpected events while antifragile systems have the ability to resist shocks."
Sep 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, recently declared that aggression and expansionism have never been in the Chinese nation’s “genes.” It is almost astonishing that he managed to say it with a straight face. Aggression and expansionism obviously are not genetic traits, but they have defined President Xi Jinping’s tenure. Xi, who in some ways has taken up the expansionist mantle of Mao Zedong, is attempting to implement a modern version of the tributary system that Chinese emperors used to establish authority over vassal states: submit to the emperor, and reap the benefits of peace and trade with the empire."
Sep 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Seventy-five years ago, the prestige of the United States and the United Kingdom could not have been higher. They had defeated imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and they did so in the name of freedom and democracy. True, their ally, Stalin’s Soviet Union, had different ideas about these fine ideals, and did most of the fighting against Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Still, the English-speaking victors shaped the post-war order in large parts of the world. The basic principles of this order had been laid down in the Atlantic Charter, drawn up in 1941 by Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland."
Sep 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "After Trump’s inauguration in January of 2017, millions demonstrated their disapproval. We can expect the same, no matter how this election turns out. With both sides framing this election in “end of the world” terms; with the president calling into question the legitimacy of the vote, even before it happens; and with the president warning his supporters that they may have to take up arms to defend him – we have a recipe for disaster that may occur in the days that follow this election. This may very well be the Armageddon election of our lifetime."
Sep 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "The Huawei case is a harbinger of a world in which national security, privacy, and economics will interact in complicated ways. Global governance and multilateralism will often fail, for both good and bad reasons. The best we can expect is a regulatory patchwork, based on clear ground rules that help empower countries to pursue their core national interests without exporting their problems to others. Either we design this patchwork ourselves, or we will end up, willy-nilly, with a messy, less efficient, and more dangerous version."
Sep 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "China’s footprint in global foreign direct investment (FDI) has increased notably since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. That served to bring Chinese overseas FDI closer to a level that one would expect, based on the country’s weight in the global economy. China accounted for about 12% of global cross-border mergers and acquisitions and 9% of announced greenfield FDI projects between 2013 and 2018. Chinese overseas FDI rose from $10 billion in 2005 (0.5% of Chinese GDP) to nearly $180 billion in 2017 (1.5% of GDP). Likewise, annual construction contracts awarded to Chinese companies increased from $10 billion in 2005 to more than $100 billion in 2017."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Emergence and spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 have created and still creating health issues, economic challenges, political crises and social conflicts around the world. These challenges and conflicts lead the international community to re-evaluate global governance and international structures, which is based on the second world-war and post-cold war. The pandemic will emerge a new era of international society that will not be similar to the pre-Corona world."
Aug 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "Russia has changed, and has been changing, since its beginnings in ancient Muscovy to its current condition as Putin’s realm. Some general features appear in much of Russian history. Most of its rulers have been authoritarian—but so, too, were most of England’s, France’s, and Germany’s. Many of its political and intellectual elites have considered Russia a special civilization deserving a place in the sun—but just as many have not, wanting to transform Russia into a Western state with Western values. Many Russians have been enamored of their country, but even more have probably damned it for destroying them and their children. What, then, is Russia? It is, and has always been, many, oftentimes contradictory, things—sometimes coexisting, sometimes getting the upper hand, always shifting, always eluding simplistic analysis. But, and this needs to be emphasized, the same holds true for every other country in the world."
Aug 26th 2020
EXTRACTS: "Double dips – defined simply as a decline in quarterly real GDP following a temporary rebound – have occurred in eight of the 11 recessions since the end of World War II. .............Financial markets aren’t the least bit worried about a relapse, owing largely to unprecedented monetary easing, which has evoked the time-honored maxim: “don’t fight the Fed.” Added comfort comes from equally unprecedented fiscal relief aimed at mitigating the pandemic-related shock to businesses and households.......This could be wishful thinking."
Aug 26th 2020
EXTRACTS: "There is no question that the re-election of President Donald Trump would endanger both the US and the world. Moreover, there is ample reason to fear that a close election could drive the US into a deep, prolonged constitutional crisis, and perhaps into civil violence.........One can only hope that the election will produce a decisive winner both in the Electoral College and in the popular vote. Yet, even then, tallying the final result may take time, owing to the massive increase in mail-in voting that is expected. Every ballot that has a postmark of November 2 or 3 (depending on the state) will be considered valid, which means that the final result will not be known until after Election Day. During that window of uncertainty, either or both campaigns may try to claim victory based on the current vote count. In any case, there is no chance that Trump will wait graciously in the Oval Office for days or weeks to receive the final tally. In interviews, he has already issued vague statements suggesting that he will not leave the White House if he loses; indeed, he seems to be actively preparing for such a scenario. If he follows through, the world’s leading superpower will find itself facing a protracted – and perhaps intractable – constitutional crisis.
Aug 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "the European Union is a community of values as much as an economic and trade bloc. But the behavior of member states such as Poland and Hungary has called into question their commitment to liberal democracy. Above all, in the US, President Donald Trump is widely criticized, even by lifelong Republicans, for not respecting or understanding the US constitution and the separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Does Trump even believe in democracy? Does he want all Americans to vote in November, regardless of race or party affiliation, or only those who will support him? And will he accept the election result if it goes against him? "
Aug 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "The fundamental difference in values between the West and China will remain indefinitely, and it is here that the West must draw the line. Any concession that entails a sacrifice of fundamental principles, for example in cultural matters, must be rejected. If this values-based approach results in economic disadvantages, so be it. By the same token, the West should abandon the conceit that it can push, force, or cajole China to become a democracy wrought in its own image. "
Aug 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "China is light years ahead of most of the rest of the world in deploying digital payment technology. Alipay or WeChat Pay apps are all that is necessary to accomplish almost anything that requires a payment in China; the country is largely already making paper money obsolete. "
Aug 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Seven hundred fifty billion euros is less than 5% of the stock of US government debt held by the public. It’s a drop in the bucket, in other words. And a drop does not a liquid market in safe assets make. Even if this really is Europe’s “Hamiltonian moment,” ramping up EU issuance by a factor of 20 will take decades. "
Aug 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "But the race is not over. In the 2016 election, prices moved the most in the two months just before the election. Trump trailed Hillary Clinton in prediction markets throughout the campaign and was seen as favourite only on election day – showing that the underdog can recover. So despite Trump’s poor position now, he might still regain some ground."
Aug 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "Last year, in the midst of the country-wide protests against corruption, I was honored by a Lebanese humanitarian organization. I began my remarks paraphrasing Kahlil Gibran’s poem “You have your Lebanon, I have my Lebanon.” Like Gibran, I love the Lebanese people, their poetry, art, song, and love of life. I love their generous and welcoming spirit. I also love what Lebanon has given to the world – especially its gifted people. And I love the sheer beauty of the country – its majestic snow-capped mountains and its pristine seascapes. And, like Gibran, I do not love Lebanon’s petty bickering politicians who lead because of an accident of birth. Nor can I embrace the country’s system of sectarian privilege and the corruption that is endemic to the political-economic regime that has squeezed Lebanon dry to the benefit of their chosen ones. And I reject the armed militias, whether they be Christian, Muslim, or secular that in the past and in the present continue to torment those who challenge their dominance. I told the audience that the Lebanon I loved was in the streets making their voices heard demanding fundamental reform – an end to sectarianism, corrupt feudal elites, and rule by force of arms."
Aug 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "It is time for the world’s governments and companies to wake up. Beijing’s reach is wide and deep. It is taking advantage of the West’s openness – and gaps and inconsistencies in our data protection protocols - to acquire information on all of us. The hacks on Anthem, Equifax, Marriott, and the US government are good examples of how they have already done so. American and Western companies need to take a hard look at the costs and benefits associated with operating in China and continuing to have Chinese partners. Those partners must comply with these Laws. American and Western companies that continue to operate with them may unwittingly well be aiding and abetting the Chinese government."
Aug 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "James Murdoch is not the most obvious candidate for editorial heroism. His route to resigning from the News Corp board because of “disagreements over certain editorial content” has been circuitous and colourful."
Aug 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "Say what you will about the slippery slope the US government has been on since Trump came to power, America has a rich history of promoting creative thought, running head-first into particularly uncomfortable subjects, and encouraging robust debate internally and among its allies and partners. Once Trump leaves the scene, America is sure to be perceived as having briefly lost its senses and will come charging back into the mainstream of global thought, debate, and engagement. China has entered the global arena crippled by its own ideology. Ultimately, the US is better equipped to lead the world. It knows that, and so does most of the rest of the world. Someone had better tell Beijing."