Donald Trump took ownership of the Afghanistan war on Monday night with an incoherent strategy that combined maximal promises with uncertain commitments of blood and treasure to achieve them.
In a metaphor for his presidency, Trump hewed to the core of his political brand—promising victory through maximum machismo—while reversing wholesale what his slogans are supposed to mean. Trump has consistently criticized the Afghanistan war as a wasteful folly. He said again on Monday that withdrawal remains his instinct, “and historically I like following my instincts.” Yet now, the message Trump seeks to send is one of indefinite commitment and additional forces.
The tension between these two irreconcilable assertions is likely to be the defining feature of the Afghanistan war under Trump. “America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out,” he said, following shortly later with a warning, aimed at the region and at his more restive nationalist supporters, that “our patience is not unlimited.”
The centrifugal force meant to hold these things together are the generals—H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, Jim Mattis, and Joe Dunford—whose counsel Trump, after months of indecision, has accepted. They now have to know they are on notice for a war plan that Trump has accepted kicking and screaming. Administration officials were already telling The Daily Beast hours before the speech that they think he’s liable to abruptly change his mind—which is an inauspicious way to begin a strategy predicated on resolve.
After insisting beyond the limits of credulity that he has “studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle,” Trump made an expansive pledge of what the purpose of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan will be. The “clear definition” of victory, he said, will be “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.”
It does not take Carl von Clausewitz to immediately see that this conception of victory is not an end state at all but rather a process. To give it perhaps more credit than it deserves, it would be called a strategy of attrition, something no one who has studied either Afghanistan or counterterrorism in great detail and from every conceivable angle thinks is achievable. An Obama-era surge that totaled 100,000 American troops, by any measure an unsustainable effort, did little more than cause the Taliban tactical setbacks.
Put more descriptively, Trump is defining victory in terms of things the military must keep doing—attacking, obliterating, crushing, preventing, stopping. That gives the lie to Trump’s hand-wave that “our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check.” The only way for the Trumpist conception of victory to mean anything is for American troops to patrol Afghanistan indefinitely, until the ever elusive and indefinable point when their Afghan protégés can outlast the Taliban.
Those who have studied Afghanistan, including those who have bled for it, like retired Army Col. Chris Kolenda, think there is only one real option to extricate the U.S. from Afghanistan without risking a fiasco. That’s to find a third-party country to mediate excruciating peace talks among the U.S., the Afghan government, the Taliban, Pakistan, and other regional stakeholders.
Not for Trump. “Someday,” perhaps, he said, it might be possible to have a “political settlement.” But, he said, “nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.” In a trivial sense, yes, no one can predict what degree of military pressure can finally cause the Taliban to sue for peace, in large part because 16 years of warfare has not.
But Trump gave no indication that he realizes such an observation is a fatal flaw for his strategy. Trump is correct that America is sick of war without victory, yet more of the same is all his strategy can offer. If there is no confidence that military pressure can force the Taliban to bend, all Trump is doing is ordering U.S. troops—and, inevitably, Afghan civilians—to their deaths for the latest installment of an open-ended mission.
And not just them. Years of frustration with Pakistan’s complex perception of its security interests in Afghanistan, which prompts its sponsorship of the Taliban and its at best deliberate neglect of al Qaeda and aligned groups, led Trump to nebulously threaten Islamabad with the end of American “partnership.” Yet much of Islamabad’s security calculations are driven by Afghanistan’s alignment with nuclear-powered enemy India, whose “strategic partnership” Trump explicitly sought for Afghanistan. That is likely to alarm Pakistan, which recent history suggests will not lead Islamabad to abandon its militant Plan B.
What remains in Trump’s speech is a lobotomized echo of the similarly incoherent approach taken by his hated predecessor. Like Barack Obama, Trump is escalating the war—the details, this time, to be left to Mattis. Like Obama, Trump pledges the D.C. think-tanker’s favorite banality, that All Elements of National Power Will Be Finally Brought to Bear on the Problem, and not just the military. Like Obama, Trump pledges a regional approach. Like Obama, Trump pledges not to nation-build while drawing Afghanistan deeper into the U.S. Treasury. Like Obama, Trump pledges both a major military effort with no clear endpoint (remember “breaking the Taliban’s momentum”?) and a Limited Amount of Patience. Like Obama, Trump is unwilling to withdraw, even while every ounce of analysis thrown at the war indicates it cannot be won.
Another uncomfortable similarity is that both presidents considered themselves boxed in, against their instincts, by their generals (and in Obama’s case, Mike Mullen, an admiral). Once Obama saw that his surge would not have the effect that his military advisers assured, his relationship with them never recovered, and Afghanistan strategy regressed to the morass that appears to be its natural resting state.
For all Obama’s myriad faults—especially his unwillingness to follow through on the dovishness he knew was right—he was a thoughtful and patient man. Trump is not. His generals may soon come to regret winning the fight for Trump’s strategy, because no one in the United States after 16 wrenching years knows how to win the Afghanistan war.