On Monday evening, President Trump gave his first nationally televised address on foreign policy since assuming the presidency. Trump is supposedly going to deploy another 4,000 troops to Afghanistan; he gave the speech to justify that increase in troop numbers.
Trump’s speech touched on several major points. Here were the most important.
1. Trump Acknowledged His Growth In Office. This was actually a major point: while Trump campaigned on the idea of pulling out of Afghanistan and talked about the situation as a “mess” for years, Trump acknowledged that his perspective had changed after taking responsibility for foreign policy. “My original instinct was to pull out — and, historically, I like following my instincts,” Trump stated. “But all my life I've heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office; in other words, when you're President of the United States. So I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle. After many meetings, over many months, we held our final meeting last Friday at Camp David, with my Cabinet and generals, to complete our strategy.”
Good for Trump.
2. Trump Called For Victory. This is nothing new — and it’s the most controversial thing about Trump’s speech. That’s because Obama also called for victory as did George W. Bush, but none of them actually defined victory — and neither did Trump. Trump stated, “First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives. The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory. They deserve the tools they need, and the trust they have earned, to fight and to win.” This last point is crucial: Trump wants to build up the military where Obama wanted to tear it down. But there’s still no point at which victory can be declared. Trump tried to define victory thusly: “From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.” But that’s exactly the same definition Obama and W. used, to little avail.
3. Trump Refused To Pull Out. There are three strategies that could be pursued in Afghanistan: first, pull out; second, massive escalation with the intent of occupying the country and propping up a friendly regime; third, muddling through. Like W. and Obama, Trump is picking the third option. As Trump stated, “A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11th.” This is correct. There aren’t any good choices in Afghanistan.
4. Trump Called Out Pakistan. This was new, and it was vital. Trump stated, “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond. Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.” Calling out Pakistan means curtailing coordination with them, and cutting funding to a government that continues to kowtow to the Taliban. Trump also said that he would seek more ties with India.
5. No Timelines. This is a change from President Obama’s constantly shifting and changing timelines. It also removes pressure for Trump to pull out at a certain point. Trump stated, “A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions. ... We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities. ... 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.” That’s worthwhile — it was always idiotic for Obama to announce when we’d pull out of Afghanistan. But refusing to make public our troop escalations also prevents Trump from feeling blowback from Right and Left.
6. Negotiations With The Taliban Aren’t Off The Table. Trump stated, “Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.” That’s a problem — leaving the possibility out there that we will negotiate with the Taliban lets them believe that they can outlast us. It’s the same policy Obama pursued, to no effect.
7. Trump Reiterated Afghan Responsibility. Trump stated, “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” That’s a fine goal, but the truth is that we’re going to have to do at least a little nation building in order to have a regime in place that makes it easier for us to kill terrorists. That was precisely the problem after 9/11: the Taliban made the conscious decision to protect al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. Trump concluded:
We will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over. Instead, we will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interests. We are not asking others to change their way of life, but to pursue common goals that allow our children to live better and safer lives. This principled realism will guide our decisions moving forward.
8. Changing The Rules Of Engagement. Trump stated, “Finally, my administration will ensure that you, the brave defenders of the American people, will have the necessary tools and rules of engagement to make this strategy work, and work effectively and work quickly.” This is a major change. The rules of engagement in Afghanistan have been a serious obstacle to anti-terror efforts. Trump knows that, and now wants his generals to take charge: “I have already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our warfighters that prevented the Secretary of Defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy. Micromanagement from Washington, D.C. does not win battles.
This was one of Trump’s better speeches. It doesn’t please anyone in any serious way — Democrats will rightly decry the lack of a victorious vision, even though Obama provided none; isolationists will point out that Trump has flipped, and his flip isn’t even large enough to provide the military necessities for destroying the Taliban. But Trump is now in the serious business of being president, and that means muddling through. At least he’s trying that, as opposed to sticking with his know-nothing Afghanistan isolationism of the campaign.