WASHINGTON ― To the wall that Mexico is not going to pay for and the Iran nuclear deal that hasn’t been torn up, to China still not being labeled a currency manipulator and an embassy in Israel still not being moved to Jerusalem, President Donald Trump can now add the Afghanistan war still not ending.
Seven months into his presidency, not only is he not withdrawing from what he had called a “terrible mistake” during his campaign, he is reportedly approving thousands of more troops, along with an open-ended commitment to remain.
“The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable,” Trump said in a prime-time speech Monday night from an Army post adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery.
The decision, which Trump’s military advisers had pushed for, worried his supporters who fear that the firing of top aide Steve Bannon will allow the “establishment” and moderates to assert themselves in the White House.
“Now it’s the generals’ turn,” said a prominent Republican National Committee member and Bannon-backer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Bannon had opposed a troop increase and instead had favored outsourcing the war to contractors.
“I see an emerging [Arnold] Schwarzenegger metamorphosis,” the RNC member added, referring to the actor-turned-governor in California who ran as a Republican but then pushed a number of moderate, even liberal policies in office.
Another top RNC member, also speaking on condition of anonymity, had a simple explanation for Trump’s many reversals since taking office: “Overtaken by reality.”
Trump himself said Monday night that “my original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts. But all my life, I have heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office. In other words, when you are president of the United States.”
His decision to escalate rather than abandon what is now the nation’s longest-running war mirrors the actions of his predecessor, Democrat Barack Obama. Obama campaigned in 2008 on ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which began in 2001 and 2003, respectively.
But in his first term, Obama approved a massive “surge” in Afghanistan to roll back Taliban gains and strengthen the U.S.-backed government before rapidly withdrawing almost all U.S. forces during his second term.
Trump in those years supported Obama’s decision: “I agree with Pres. Obama on Afghanistan. We should have a speedy withdrawal. Why should we keep wasting our money ― rebuild the U.S.!” he wrote in early 2013.
During his presidential campaign, Trump argued that U.S. involvement in wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan were “stupid.”
“We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place, we had real brilliant thinkers that didn’t know what the hell they were doing, and it’s a mess,” he told CNN in October 2015.
The next spring, he said he favored withdrawing from the Middle East entirely. “When it’s not ISIS, it will be somebody else. We have been over there for so many years. We have spent up to $5 trillion,” he told Fox News in May 2016. “At some point we have to get the hell out. You know with ISIS, you knock them out, there will be someone else. It will continue to form. It’s a mess.”
Trump’s decision to increase the military presence in Afghanistan adds to the already long list of campaign promises he made that he has either been unable to keep or on which he has changed his position.
From the earliest days of his campaign, Trump not only promised a massive wall on the southern border but that Mexico would pay for it. In a phone call a week into his tenure, however, Trump conceded to Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto that that would not actually happen. But he asked Pena Nieto not say so publicly.
Trump promised to label China a currency manipulator. He did not. Trump promised to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He has not done that, either. Nor has he pulled out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, voided the deal lifting sanctions on Iran in return for an end to its nuclear program or replaced the Affordable Care Act.
“And no infrastructure deal,” said John Weaver, a top aide to Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s Republican presidential bid last year, about Trump’s promise to spend $1 trillion to rebuild the nation’s highways, railroads and airports.
Weaver said Trump now has the challenge of presenting a plan supported by his military commanders after having squandered his credibility with falsehoods about everything from the size of his inaugural crowds to a made-up phone call from the leader of the Boy Scouts of America.
“How is he going to sell this to the country?” Weaver said. “Here he is with disapproval ratings that are tremendous and nobody believes him.”
Trump’s defenders conceded that he has not delivered on his campaign promises but argued that he is still only in his first year.
“I mean, he’s got three years,” said Randy Evans, a Republican National Committee member from Georgia. “Some things he may be able to deliver on, some things he may not be able to deliver on. ... On each promise, there’s a serious effort to fulfill those promises.”