Donald Trump on Monday evening fell into the same trap that presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama fell into before him. He caved in to his generals, not just to remain in Afghanistan, but to increase the US troop presence by 4,000 soldiers and to waste more billions of US taxpayer dollars. I've been in some of those same general officer briefings during my years in the CIA and as a senior staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The generals always say the same thing: "We're winning this war. We just need a little more time and money and a few thousand more troops. Trust us."
Trump spoke to the nation on Monday from Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, formerly known as Fort Myer, a completely ceremonial base with no combat mission of any kind, and which serves as the home of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the soldiers and sailors who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns. Ironically, Trump was mere yards from the graves of many of the 2,386 US troops killed in Afghanistan since October 2001.
Trump laid out a convoluted, confusing, and contradictory strategy that would keep the US mired in combat in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. He committed untold billions of dollars for the training of Afghan troops as if that hadn't been thought of before, and he lobbed a verbal grenade into the middle of US relations with Pakistan at the same time. In the end, he will likely accomplish nothing, while more and more US troops are killed in an endless and unwinnable war.
Trump made only a handful of points in the speech. First, he said, he would not be limited by a timetable, but instead would make policy based on developments on the ground. Second, he said that the US would continue to initiate public works projects to put Afghans to work. He added, though, that the US commitment was "not a blank check." Third, he said that the US would not be in the business of nation-building. Instead, it would be in the business of "killing terrorists."
Perhaps most importantly, Trump made a direct and threatening challenge to Pakistan, all but declaring that the Pakistani government was at least partly responsible for terrorism in the region. While that may or may not be true, that is language that should be confined to quiet diplomacy. Humiliating an ally in public usually doesn't give a president the desired result. And to add insult to injury, he suggested that Pakistan's arch enemy, India, should assume a greater role in Afghanistan, a move that would essentially encircle Pakistan. Trump either meant to be provocative and to risk relations with Pakistan or he's never looked at a map.
So who convinced this president -- who has literally no experience whatsoever in foreign, defense, or intelligence policy -- to continue the same failed policy that Barack Obama and George W. Bush pursued before him? It was those generals who were supposed to be the adults in the room. It was the generals that the mainstream media hoped would be the ones to moderate this unpredictable president.
It was secretary of defense and former Marine Corps general James Mattis, who led the deepest marine assault in American history into Kandahar, Afghanistan, in late 2001. It was National Security Advisor LTG H.R. McMaster, who led an anti-corruption task force in Afghanistan in 2010. It was General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was the commanding general in Afghanistan in 2013. It was General John Kelly, the White House chief of staff who lost a son in Afghanistan in 2010.
This is the same Donald Trump who tweeted in 2013, "Let's get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis [sic] we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA." Two months later, he tweeted, "We should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives. If we have to go back in, we go in hard & quick. Rebuild the US first." And all the way back in 2011, he tweeted, "Ron Paul is right when he says we are wasting lives and money in Iraq and Afghanistan."
With these flip-flops in mind, Trump now owns the Afghanistan debacle. And this is despite the fact that he knows that continued US involvement in Afghanistan is a mistake.
I'm not much of a fan of the neoliberal former senator and secretary of state John Kerry, my old boss at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But he was right when he asked a Senate subcommittee in 1971, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" How indeed? Those are the words that Trump will have to ask himself for every soldier, sailor, and marine he sends to Afghanistan.
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