President Donald Trump proved one thing beyond the shadow of a doubt in his Afghanistan strategy speech Monday night: After nearly 16 years of fighting America’s longest war, America is bereft of new ideas.
He called his plan “dramatically different.” It wasn’t. The only thing that seemed a striking change from his two presidential predecessors’ approach to the war launched after the attacks of September 11, 2001, was Trump’s escalatory rhetoric. He repeatedly vowed to “win” a conflict that his Defense Secretary James Mattis told Congress recently “we are not winning” and sharply criticized Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan, a troublesome ally Trump excoriated for offering “safe haven” to terrorists.
“But beyond the scathing language and an open-ended pledge to “fight to win,” Trump offered few details about a plan that administration sources have said involves the sending of a few thousand more troops to Afghanistan. The Pentagon deems such a move necessary to avoid the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul but it would hardly be a force capable of dramatically changing facts on the ground a few years after a surge to some 100,000 American troops at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency failed to do so.”
He suggested there were no “arbitrary timetables” for American withdrawal aside from unspecific conditions being met, vowed not to micromanage troops from Washington, and pledged not to spend anymore money or effort on failed nation-building attempts.
“Yes, we will defeat them, and we will defeat them handily,” Trump said. And throughout the speech, his very first prime-time address on an urgent national security decision, Trump showed that no TelePrompter could force him to adopt the formal language of previous presidents, taunting the terrorists from Al Qaeda and the Islamic State he has vowed to wipe out as “thugs,” “criminals,” “and yes, losers.”
The most striking—and certainly the most honest—part of the speech came at the very beginning, when Trump owned up to his flip-flop on the Afghan war and skepticism about the battle plan offered by his own commanders, acknowledging what had been apparent from West Wing leaks for months.
“Let’s get out Afghanistan,” Trump had tweeted on January 11, 2013. “Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.”
But the Trumpster has surrounded himself with Generals and hawks and for his national security state appointees, Afghanistan is more than a war to them. Its personal.
In the months after the 9/11 attacks, Trump’s secretary of defense, retired Marine four-star General James Mattis, led the deepest assault from a ship in Marine Corps history near the key Taliban city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
Trump’s National Security Adviser Lt. General H.R. McMaster served in Afghanistan, leading an anti-corruption task force there in 2010.
Trump’s top military adviser, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, was the commanding general in Afghanistan in 2013.And General John Kelly, the retired four-star Marine general who is now Trump’s chief of staff, lost a son in Afghanistan, 29-year-old Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly who was killed by a landmine there in 2010.
Four days after his son’s death, in a speech in St. Louis, Kelly said that the United States’ war against jihadist terrorists will go on for a very long time. “The American military has handed our ruthless enemy defeat after defeat, but it will go on for years, if not decades, before this curse has been eradicated,” he said at the time.
So when it came to developing a new strategy for Afghanistan, the generals brought a degree of commitment to the longest war in US history that their commander in chief, at least initially, did not share.
The generals had a different view of what was at stake.
Generals Mattis, Kelly and Dunford have fought alongside each other since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Then-Major General Mattis, then-Brigadier General Kelly and then-Colonel Dunford led the Marine force that went into Iraq in March 2003 during the initial US invasion of the country. All of them experienced the visceral sense that US forces leaving Iraq at the end of 2011 helped pave the way for the collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of ISIS’s campaign in Iraq in 2014.
None of them wanted the same scenario to play out in Afghanistan. In the end the Generals had their way.
The entire speech was a tirade against boundaries and borders and the systems of accountability that are meant to keep America from getting involved in unending wars conducted in manners that later make us ashamed.
There are, in any war, secret deployments and operations, but Trump is enshrining the idea of secret wars, with secretly mustered armies. In briefings to reporters, various Administration officials have mentioned deploying four thousand additional troops, with the intimation that there were generals who wanted Trump to send more. He has made it easy for that number to be elastic, and to stretch without public restraint.
His plan for the war, on a tactical level, is to hand it over to “wartime commanders”—a striking phrase. “Micromanagement from Washington, D.C., does not win battles.” Trump said that he had already “lifted restrictions” on what troops could do in the field, and would lift more, so that they had ever greater power to act “in real time, with real authority.” The number of civilian casualties has spiked sharply since Trump took office.
And by what authority would he be acting? There was no call, in Trump’s speech, for any sort of action or affirmation by Congress. Congress, which is supposed to declare wars, bears a great deal of responsibility for this continued open-endedness. People in both parties have realized for years that the evolution of the A.U.M.F. (Authorization for Use of Military Force was passed 3 days after 9/11) into, essentially, a multi-country war pass is a problem, but they haven’t really done anything about it.
Why does no one but the Generals give a rats ass about Afghanistan? Afghanistan is at the bottom of all listings of human development, ahead of only Somalia and North Korea. They make nothing. They make no washing machines and certainly do not make weapons in any quantity. There is no art, music, literature, poetry worthy of the name. The society is feudal outside of the cities.
The answer is this: As with budget deficits or cost overruns on weapons purchases, members of the national security apparatus — elected and appointed officials, senior military officers and other policy insiders — accept war as a normal condition.
Once, the avoidance of war figured as a national priority. On those occasions when war proved unavoidable, the idea was to end the conflict as expeditiously as possible on favorable terms
“These precepts no longer apply. With war transformed into a perpetual endeavor, expectations have changed. In Washington, war has become tolerable, an enterprise to be managed rather than terminated as quickly as possible. Like other large-scale government projects, war now serves as a medium through which favors are bestowed, largess distributed and ambitions satisfied.”
Too much money is being made, promotions to Colonel and General, a chance for careerists to pad the resume with a combat command; not to mention builders, road pavement, private security firms etc. Only the poor bastard who takes a bullet gets it in the neck.
Not one more poor sonofabitch Corporal should be sent to die in that shithole of a country.
Not until Jared Kushner goes.