Friday, August 25, 2017

Rubicon of mud: Trump sets the course on Afghanistan

Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home!
Donald Trump, Twitter, 2012

We should leave Afghanistan immediately.
Donald Trump, Twitter, 2013

WHAT A DISSONANCE an election cycle makes. Back in the day, in the hurly-burly of the 2012 campaign, when Donald Trump was more of an outlier prospect for the presidency than he was four years later, the grifter mogul could say whatever he wanted — presumably whatever he believed — and answer to no one, relishing in the comparatively consequence-free zone of the non-candidate.

Trump did just that back then, calling for a full withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the country that was and is, as much as any other, considered a Petri dish for any number of malignant terrorist entities with aspirations of global dominance.

Part of that we know was Trump’s sheer contrariness vis-a-vis anything to do with President Obama. As a reflex, if Obama supported it, Trump was against it. That made calling for a troop pullout “immediately” easy to do. Back then, Trump didn’t have to reckon with the consequences of an idea like that.

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Fast forward four-plus years. While Obama relishes in the eight years of his presidential era, tranquil by comparison, President* Donald Trump is looking down the barrel of his first eight dismal months in office and the prospect of more to come. And his Afghanistan solution from years ago is confronting a reality he didn’t wargame adequately, or at all.

That much was evident on Tuesday, when Trump, allergic to the wartime policies of his predecessor, gave tacit approval to Defense Secretary James Mattis to add 4,000 U.S. troops to the numbers there now — not withdrawing forces, but doubling down on what his predecessor did to deal with this nation’s longest war.

The most pivotal foreign policy decision Trump has had to make in the seven months since assuming office is one that has, to greater or lesser extent, been made before. And more than once.

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WE KNEW it was important by the way he talked on Tuesday night, before a crowd of troops stationed at Fort Myer, in Arlington, Md. His usual reverence to the military, his longstanding soft spot for men and women in uniform, were obvious. The wind machine was dialed way down, but it didn’t obscure or conceal the central fact of what the president* had to deliver: more of the same of what we’ve had for the last 16 years, more of the very conflict that will be his legacy too.

Conflicts were definitely the order of the day. Before he even talked about the prospects of war in a foreign country, Trump obliquely addressed the war at home. With what seemed like an indirect reference to the deadly civil clashes in Charlottesville, Va., Trump made some of his most anodyne remarks since taking office.

“When one part of America hurts, we all hurt. And when one citizen suffers an injustice, we all suffer together,” he said. “Loyalty to our nation demands loyalty to one another. Love for America requires love for all of its people. When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate. The young men and women we send to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home. We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.”

Where the hell was this circumspection, this open-heartedness last week, when we needed it more?

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IT WAS a moment to glimpse the Donald Trump that might have been, instead of the one we got, bellowing “America first!” in the campaign, and beyond … and now, on Tuesday, about to usher the county into a foreign-policy mission that fates him to steering a raft across a Rubicon of mud.

“[…W]e must acknowledge the reality I am here to talk about tonight; that nearly 16 years after [the] September 11 attacks, after the extraordinary sacrifice of blood and treasure, the American people are weary of war without victory,” Trump said. “Nowhere is this more evident than with the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history — 17 years. I share the American people’s frustration. I also share their frustration 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.”

And then it came, the subsequent But language that weds — though some will say “cements” — Trump’s Afghan foreign policy to that of his two predecessors. “[T]he consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable. 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in our history, was planned and directed from Afghanistan, because that country was ruled by a government that gave comfort and shelter to terrorists. A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and Al-Qaeda, would instantly fill just as happened before September 11th.”

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Trump: “And as we know, in 2011, America hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq. As a result, our hard-won gains slipped back into the hands of terrorist enemies. Our soldiers watched as cities they had fought for, and bled to liberate, and won, were occupied by a terrorist group called ISIS. The vacuum we created by leaving too soon gave safe haven for ISIS to spread, to grow, recruit, and launch attacks.”

There was a blame game to be played, of course, and Trump played it against Pakistan, an easy whipping boy for South Asia instabilities (its role as Osama bin Laden’s last safe haven doesn’t help). “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars, at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting,” Trump said. “But that will have to change, and that will change immediately. No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials.”

“We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities,” Trump said. “Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”

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THE PRESIDENT-presumptive thus marches in lock step with Presidents Bush and Obama before him in rhetorically painting in broad strokes over Afghanistan what can’t be reliably achieved with the fine-point pen. Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times grasped this immediately: “If you listened closely, he wasn’t really promising to win the Afghan war, except in the limited sense of preventing the Taliban from toppling the U.S.-backed government … more like a holding action aimed at staving off defeat.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson proved that point, betraying a naivete we didn’t think was possible from an administration official not named Donald Trump. “This entire effort is intended to put pressure on the Taliban, to have the Taliban understand that you will not win a battlefield victory,” Tillerson said to reporters on Tuesday. “We may not win one, but neither will you.”

We may not win one, but neither will you. That may be the textbook embodiment of “hanging fire,” of ratifying inaction, of institutionalizing inertia. Tillerson thus tacitly admits that the United States isn't just ready for stalemate, it’s predicting one — and planning accordingly. Attrition, the presumably incidental act of going nowhere in a military context, is or will be a tactic deliberately employed by the greatest military machine in the world.

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Trump on Tuesday unleashed his inner George S. Patton, coolly declaring that “In the end, we will win,” without offering much detail as to what winning in this asymmetrical military context would even look like. Short-sighted and reactionary as usual, he embraced the tactical while ignoring the strategic in his breathtakingly short-sighted comments about Pakistan. On Tuesday, months after praising Pakistan, he castigated Islamabad for harboring terrorists — and in the same speech insisted that Pakistan work with the United States on counter-terrorism measures.

This inconsistency didn’t go unnoticed. The Los Angeles Times reported that the Pakistani Government Foreign Office issued a statement not long after Trump spoke:

“No country in the world has done more than Pakistan to counter the menace of terrorism.  No country in the world has suffered more than Pakistan from the scourge of terrorism, often perpetrated from outside our borders. It is, therefore disappointing that the US policy statement ignores the enormous sacrifices rendered by the Pakistani nation in this effort.”

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WHAT GOES around comes back around. In August 2009, Michael Moore, the filmmaker and Obama supporter, was interviewed for Rolling Stone. Moore seemed to understand just how far an outsider, any outsider can go to effect change in Afghanistan, and who’s ultimately responsible for that change taking place.

“The Taliban are not an invading force — they are citizens of Afghanistan and it is up to the Afghan people to decide whether they want to be oppressed by a group of religious fanatics. It’s not the business of our country to be in Afghanistan right now. … it will, a year from now, become his war, just as Vietnam became Nixon’s war.”

Fast forward eight years, and ain’t a damn thing changed. Except the name of the belligerents in chief.

What was true in November 2009 about one president —
“For this new and not-so-new president, the war in Afghanistan — the 800-pound guerrilla war that’s about to assume center stage in the foreign-policy debate — is the in-basket action item that will not be moved. For its potential to presage the future of his administration, to become possibly the defining action of his foreign policy, there is no more pressing issue than the Afghan War.”
— may yet be true again for another.

What President Obama enunciated as policy in December 2009 —
“We will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al-Qaida a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.”
— could well have been superimposed on Tuesday night’s address by Obama’s successor. Word for word.

And Trump’s clearly suggested that he’s not up for dictating a regional solution, any more than Bush or Obama may have tried that on purpose. Nation-building as a geopolitical objective is out, Trump said. And there it is, a problem desperately in search of a solution, now as it has been for too close to a generation.

A lot’s been made about Trump’s hold on presidential legitimacy; time, the courts and Robert Mueller will sort that out. But while Trump may or may not have properly inherited the presidency, he’s sure AF to have inherited the thorniest, most intractable, most diplomacy-impervious foreign-policy conundrum in this nation’s history.

Image credits: Trump: Pool feed from Fort Myer. Choppers inbound: Spc. Mary L. Gonzalez, CJTF-101 Public Affairs. Tillerson: Alex Wong/Getty Images. L.A. Times nameplate: © 2017 Los Angeles Times/Tronc. Obama 2009: Pete Souza.

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