In one tweet, back in 2013, Donald Trump summed up his view of the Afghanistan War, and pretty much any U.S. military intervention overseas. Get out, he said. “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,” he said that March, long before he was a presidential candidate. He underlined his position in a dozen other tweets around that time. “Afghanistan is a complete waste,” he said in 2012. “Let’s get out!” he wrote a year later.
For most of the 2016 campaign, Trump echoed that sentiment. He said U.S. military leaders were “failing.” He said he knew more than the generals. He warned against regime change in countries that posed no existential threat to the United States. He warned against nation-building.
Then he went nearly silent. Since his inauguration, Trump had barely mentioned Afghanistan until Tuesday night, when he announced a major change of heart about continuing the war. Most of what he announced was a simple continuation, or mild expansion, of what the U.S. had been doing under President Barack Obama.
“The American people are weary of war without victory,” he said at Fort Myer, Va., speaking before a pindrop-still crowd of senior U.S. military leaders.
Reading his speech, Trump sounded more measured and nuanced than usual, more presidential than tweeter-in-chief. He sounded like he’s been listening to the generals. He made no off-script comments, no divisive attacks on the media, no rambling partisanship.
“My original instinct was to pull out,” Trump said, “and historically I like following my instincts, but all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office. So I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every angle.”
Trump did not say what the generals had told him. He did not reveal what he learned. But here’s what military leaders have been saying of late: There’s not one war in Afghanistan; there are about 20 battles against terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and Pakistan that are causing instability, dividing the country, and weighing down its future. Some of those battles are with organizations that could threaten the West. And there are just three organizations that the United States has prioritized as targets because they are most likely capable to launch, or inspire, attacks outside of Afghanistan.
That’s the war. Those are the battles. They are not yet won. It’s not over. It’s changed. Trump has heard from his team, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, Central Command’s Gen. Joseph Votel. They have told him that the U.S. needs more counterterrorism forces in the country, the Afghans need a bit more help, Pakistan needs more pressure, and America needs reassuring their troops and taxes are not on a fruitless mission.
“We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists,” Trump said.
That’s about the polar opposite of generals and admirals who are always saying, “We can’t kill our way to victory,” and who want an ounce-of-prevention, non-military plan to change the reasons terrorism exists in the first place.
Trump said his new U.S. strategy will “change dramatically” by being based on “conditions” instead of “timetables.” But that’s not new, either. Every Obama troop adjustment came with the disclaimer of flexing to meet “conditions on the ground.”
Here’s the bottom line: Afghanistan is complicated, but fighting terrorists is not. If the United States wants its special operations forces to keep fighting in Afghanistan or Pakistan, it needs bases in the region. It needs the forward base in Jalalabad, it needs the air base at Bagram, it needs the headquarters in Kabul, it needs a base in Kandahar, and more. The U.S. also needs extensive intelligence, both on the ground and via aircraft and other means of surveillance. If Americans want to keep groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Taliban from growing, then America needs nearly-permanent bases and forces in Afghanistan. This is not Iraq, with forces at the ready from nearby bases ready in Kuwait, Turkey, and on aircraft carriers.
Trump said he shares Americans’ frustration with this long war. By now, perhaps millions of Americans have stepped a toe in Afghanistan, and plenty are frustrated. Veterans are frustrated that they fought and their friends died to take ground that has returned to Taliban control. Diplomats and development workers are frustrated that some wonderful progress, like girls’ school enrollment, is nay-said by a Congress that bad-mouths “foreign aid” for partisan points. And the American public is frustrated to be involved at all. That’s where Trump comes in. More than any candidate, he represented Americans who don’t read the Pentagon press corps’ dispatches from Kabul or worry about the status of Afghan National Security Force attrition, or even much care how many Afghan girls are in school — not when the U.S has its own political divisions and problems. Americans don’t care about Afghanistan. They want to know why it’s taken 16 years to get to a “stalemate.”
Trump didn’t answer those questions, but he did set some conditions and even a faint red line. He told Afghans that while the U.S. will support their government and military, “Our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check. The American people expect to see real reforms and real results.” That, too, is not a new sentiment from the White House. But if Afghans can’t secure their own country in another four years, or eight, or 16, then what? Will Trump pull out, as he long pushed his predecessor to do? Would any U.S. president?
It’s up to national security leaders of all parties and ranks, in uniform and out, from Capitol Hill to Foggy Bottom, to figure out how to better tell, and sell, the story of Afghanistan. And it’ll take more than a few thousand more troops. It’ll take decades of Afghanistan transforming itself into something it’s not. And it’ll take place alongside the Islamic extremism movement nearly every top U.S. general has warned is a generational war of ideas. It’s the most cliche phrase of the post-9/11 wars, but it’s true: the U.S. can’t kill it’s way to victory over there. If total victory is what America wants — what Trump wants — then national security leaders in Washington need to lead a new way forward, with a unified message and plan, doubling down on not just the troops in country but all the non-military ways America intends to win this global strategic battle. They must then educate, engage, and convince the American people to back it and get involved.
Or don’t. Let the military just keep fighting terrorism as Americans go about their business the way that police fight crime in the streets. Maybe Trump was right. Get out. Or don’t. Americans won’t care too much by Wednesday morning, anyway. Who knows what Trump will tweet out next?