Trump's Not-So-New Afghanistan Strategy

08/21/2017 10:52 pm ET Updated Aug 22, 2017

There’s a reason why Afghanistan is known as the “graveyard of empires.” Ask the Soviets... or Alexander the Great, for that matter. The United States of America’s war in Afghanistan has gone on far longer than any other conflict we’ve ever fought in, and there has been no real end in sight for a long time now.

That’s the situation Donald Trump inherited as president, and it is (as he said tonight), “a bad and very complex hand” to play. But tonight’s speech ― billed as the unveiling of Trump’s new strategy for Afghanistan ― was actually more of a realization of this basic fact by Trump than any new military thinking. He openly admitted, for the first time I can really remember, that he was essentially wrong on the campaign trail when he promised quick victory and quick resolution of Afghanistan. That is momentous, since Trump rarely admits any mistakes whatsoever. This can be placed alongside his statement a few months back that healthcare reform was rather complicated (who knew?), in other words.

But before I get to my reactions of the speech’s content, first let’s look at the style of Trump’s speech. While Trump has indeed been working towards a new Afghanistan strategy for a long time now, for whatever reasons (political, perhaps?) Trump pushed for a resolution late last week and decided to announce his new strategy now. This was (obviously) supposed to allow him to “look presidential” just after a week in which he looked anything but, on several notable occasions.

Part of Trump looking presidential, of course, is sticking to the script someone else writes for him. Now, all presidents have speechwriters, but for most of them it was hard to tell when they were ad-libbing their own remarks and when they were reading a prepared script off the TelePrompTer. With Trump, the difference is pretty easy to identify. Tonight, Trump rarely inserted his own asides, and when he did they were all appropriate and not in any way over-the-top. So Trump did manage to clear the “presidential-looking” bar tonight.

Trump sounded either tired or perhaps out of breath for much of the start of his speech, which lasted 20 or 25 minutes in total. He did get more animated later on, and you could hear some emotion in his voice when he spoke of 9/11 and terrorists. As always when speaking before military audiences, however, Trump seemed to at times be waiting for applause when none was forthcoming (this isn’t any negative reflection on Trump, it must be pointed out for fairness’ sake, as soldiers in uniform are instructed not to applaud or react while their president is speaking no matter what he says).

Overall, it wasn’t the best speech I’ve ever seen Trump give (even the best in the “TelePrompTer only” category), but then again it wasn’t the worst. He probably improved his image a bit after the disastrous previous week he had, and he looked sober and serious while discussing issues of war and America’s foreign policy. So, overall, a pretty good speech by Trumpian standards. At no time did he sound petulant or whiny or egotistical or filled with rage, and for Trump that meant it was a solid speech.

In terms of content, well... there just wasn’t a lot there. Or not much in the way of a new strategy, at any rate. Trump did spend a few paragraphs near the beginning of his speech attempting once again to revisit his reactions to Charlottesville, and the speechwriter did a particularly fine job of weaving it in on the theme of [I am paraphrasing, here]: “The military doesn’t put up with any racism or hatred in its ranks, so they deserve to come home to an America that also rejects such hatred.” Trump directly said there should be “no tolerance for hate” and that America needed to “heal our divisions here at home.” Of course, it’s only Monday. Who knows what he’ll say on Tuesday, if last week is any guide.

In terms of the main subject of the speech, Trump began by saying: “The American people are weary of war without victory,” which has largely been true since about the middle of George W. Bush’s term in office, really. Then Trump made his admission that what he had thought on the campaign trail was overly simplistic, and that (for once) his “original instinct to pull out” was not the best idea. Trump actually admitted that making such decisions as president was different than he had originally thought.

Trump outlined three conclusions he came to after learning about the region from his advisors. The first was that we had to achieve an “honorable and enduring outcome” because the people who fought there deserved “a plan for victory.” Next, a rapid exit would be a bad idea. And third, that the security threats “are immense” in not only Afghanistan but also in Pakistan and India.

After some words on how bad terrorists were and how it was bad they had safe havens in the region, Trump moved to his new strategy. Kind of. He began by saying that he would refuse to “talk about numbers of [American] troops” heading to the battlefield. He reiterated this a few times, which was also a theme of his on the campaign trail ― we will not allow our enemies to know what our military is doing, essentially.

This may be taking the concept too far, though, since Trump and the Pentagon aren’t the only entities involved in such decisions. Congress, for instance, is quite likely to ask exactly how many more soldiers will be heading over there. And if we’re going to ask NATO countries to up their troop involvement (something Trump called for later in his speech), they’re going to want to see some hard numbers too. So this insistence by Trump that we won’t be talking about troop numbers probably isn’t going to hold up for very long. But at least it fit in with his campaign promises.

Trump returned multiple times to the theme of denouncing “nation-building.” He promised an integrated effort between the military and the diplomatic corps, but the State Department is so woefully understaffed right now that it’s hard to see much diplomatic action taking place. But whatever these efforts wind up achieving, it won’t be nation-building, which Trump seems to define as shoehorning democracy upon a country not ready for it (I could be wrong about that, but that’s the impression I’ve gotten).

As for the actual fight in Afghanistan, Trump promised to loosen the rules of engagement and also promised to lean hard on networks supporting the terrorists, but none of that really seems all that different than what we’ve been doing for over 16 years now. No matter how many soldiers have been over there at one time, the strategies of Bush, Obama, and Trump all seem pretty similar, in other words. To date, none have been anywhere near as successful as we would have liked.

What was new in Trump’s speech was a much tougher attitude towards Pakistan. Trump hit Pakistan for allowing safe harbors for the Taliban and others, and for essentially looking the other way. He’s right about that, but that’s also going to be unbelievably hard to ever change. Trump seemed to be threatening Pakistan with closer U.S. relations with India, although again it’s tough to say whether that’s going to be very effective or not.

But at least it is a new strategy to try, for which I’ll give Trump credit. Once again, I’d feel a lot better about any chance of success if the State Department were fully staffed up, though, since they’ll have to be the ones to make any changes happen.

The one surprising thing in Trump’s speech (to me) was how little he patted himself on the back for the continuing success in the fight against the Islamic State. He spent (I believe) one sentence on it during the entire speech, in fact. That’s an amazing amount of restraint (and selflessness, even) for Trump to show for what is unquestionably a successful military campaign. It has been a long and slow effort, one that started under Barack Obama, but Trump isn’t generally known for missing an opportunity to brag about good news, whether he deserves much credit for it or not.

So, overall, the speech Trump gave tonight was serious and presidential. His delivery was also fairly impressive, for him. He tried to address his own shortcomings on the Charlottesville tragedy, he was restrained and didn’t mention Obama or Bush by name, and he managed to speak respectfully the entire time.

In terms of content, though, this was definitely not some brand-new plan for victory in the Middle East (as he promised during the campaign “within his first 30 days in office”), and it bears a marked resemblance to what we’ve been doing all along in Afghanistan. That’s good news in one way, after the possibility of just turning the whole war over to mercenaries was floated last week. Trump is going to diplomatically lean on Pakistan much more heavily, which was the only real new proposal Trump made. Some extra soldiers will probably be heading to Afghanistan, but we can’t possibly know how many. And we’ll have to declare victory and come home at some point because “our patience is not unlimited.”

Afghanistan’s patience to outwait us, however, was not mentioned. This, after all, is how they earned that “graveyard of empires” title to begin with.

Chris Weigant blogs at ChrisWeigant.com

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

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