NEW YORK – U.S. President Donald Trump was right to jettison his initial instincts for a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan and to articulate a firm, continued commitment to that country and the region in his recent speech. The conventional wisdom was quick to dismiss the strategy as little different from that of President Barack Obama. But it is in fact a welcome departure from Obama’s foreign policy in two critical ways.
First, Trump deserves credit for a decision that clearly goes against immediate political interests. Sure, this is a low bar; we should all want and expect our commander in chief to prioritize national security above voter popularity. But it is easy, when viewing the tumultuous and sometimes baffling Trump foreign policy, to forget how domestic political considerations were so often the driving force behind Obama’s foreign policy. The best example of this is the drive to remove all U.S. forces from Iraq before the 2012 presidential elections.
Trump’s advisers may try to spin the approach outlined in his speech as consistent with his campaign rhetoric, but this is a tough sell. One just needs to look at Trump’s pre-presidency tweets to see what a departure this is: “We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let’s get out! (Nov. 22, 2013)”
More important, Trump’s new strategy discards the timeline under which Obama’s Afghan strategy always labored. The significance of returning to the conditions-based approach of President George W. Bush — that is, tying U.S. military presence to improvements in security, not domestically driven political timelines — cannot be underestimated.
Nothing did more to undercut Obama’s 2009 surge of troops into Afghanistan than his announcing in advance when Western forces would be pulled out. Given that no victory over the Taliban was conceivable, the only realistic objective of more military might was to bring the enemy to the negotiating table. Yet as long as waiting out U.S. resolve was a distinct option, compromise never seemed attractive to the Taliban, and the war dragged on. This is not just my opinion. It is also that of the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan under Obama, James Cunningham, who said as much to an audience at the Aspen Institute just last month.
Ditching the timeline will also help strengthen the nation’s institutions critical to success. Afghans were reluctant to invest in a state when the chances of its failure seemed high; instead, many in important roles saw their time in government as little more than a chance to position themselves as well as possible for when the state collapsed. But now that the U.S. seems committed to staying, Afghans are more likely to see the state as worthy of their efforts to create a new reality.
Finally, losing the timeline could make a big impression on two countries that are not mentioned in Trump’s speech, but are creating major obstacles to a better Afghan future: Iran and Russia. Both governments have upped their meddling, likely positioning themselves for what was perceived as an imminent American departure.
For all these reasons, removing an arbitrary timeline from the U.S. Afghan strategy will make it a significantly different approach than that tried under Obama — with better prospects for success.
Yet, while appreciating these two points, I still find the new strategy wanting. As a deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, I listened to the speech asking myself whether it would give all members of our government sufficient strategic guidance to put in place a winning plan. The answer was no. At least three major contradictions need to be resolved before what was outlined can be translated into an approach with some prospect of delivering a different outcome than the current “stalemate” acknowledged by General John W. Nicholson, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
First, Trump spoke of how “a fundamental pillar of our new strategy is the integration of all instruments of American power: diplomatic, economic and military.” No such speech could afford to say otherwise — this phrase is the bread and butter of anyone who has worked in national security since the Sept. 11 attacks. Yet not only did Trump not explain how the non-military tools would be used in concert with physical force, he sowed doubt about their importance with his line “we are not nation-building again, but killing terrorists.”
I understand that “nation-building” may be the most unpopular phrase in America. But one cannot succeed in squelching terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction without improving the military and civilian abilities of partner governments that face terrorist threats. Military engagement helps — armies, air forces and police are critical institutions in any society. But it is in the realm of nation-building that the nonmilitary instruments of national power truly come to bear. What is the purpose of diplomatic and economic efforts in Afghanistan if not to buttress the legitimacy and capacities of the Kabul government?
Second, Trump made his usual comments about how he will not provide the enemy with details about his military approach. But the president needs to keep in mind that his audience is not only the enemy; it is also, more importantly, the American people. If he wants to calibrate the U.S. military presence to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan, he will need to invest a lot of time and effort speaking to the American public about why Afghanistan is important and how what the U.S. is doing there is producing results. Obama rarely did this, even with tens of thousands of Americans deployed there.
Trump will have to be different, and specific, if he hopes to succeed — and banalities about not telegraphing plans to the enemies will grow thin quickly. Americans aren’t interested in tactical or operational plans, but they do want to understand and have confidence in the strategy — which will require sharing more details than offered last week.
Finally, Trump glossed over the complexities of the U.S. relationship with Pakistan. For those who have worked on Afghanistan over the last 16 years, it was refreshing to hear an American president call Pakistan out on its troubling behavior. But there is an obvious tension between the ability of the U.S. to work with Pakistan on the larger agenda of nonproliferation and counter-terrorism that goes beyond Afghanistan, and threatening to condition U.S. support for Islamabad based only on Pakistani actions in Afghanistan.
In a world in which terrorism and WMD have not yet been married but could be, Pakistan — the fastest builder of nuclear weapons in the world — has as least as much leverage over the U.S. as Washington does over Islamabad. The Trump administration may have decided to prioritize Afghanistan above all other interests in which Pakistan — for better or worse — has a role to play. If so, this approach requires some major contingency planning about other regional crises that may occur, and we can only surmise such planning is going on behind the scenes.
Trump’s speech on Afghanistan was welcome on several fronts. But let’s hope that it was just a telegraphed version of a much more developed strategy — one that the president’s team is laying out in much greater detail to the military and civilian leadership in the government right now, and one that he will take more time to explain to the American people in the future. If not, the kudos he gets for resisting a more politically popular short-term approach will be meaningless in the face of a long-term strategy full of unresolved contradictions.
Meghan L. O’Sullivan is a Bloomberg columnist and the Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. She served on the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007, and was deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan.