The Trillion Dollar Question

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(Ahmad Nadeem/Reuters)

Tonight, President Trump will make a televised address explaining his new plan for Afghanistan. While details are sketchy at this point, we know enough to understand what’s going on. This is one of the rare occasions where Trump’s impulses are basically correct — but just like everyone else, he has no solution to the underlying problem.

Trump is reportedly frustrated that the United States can’t seem to win, but he doesn’t want to get pulled into a major escalation of the conflict and the American presence there. And so the “plan” looks to be the following: Take a few minor steps to keep things from getting worse, then pass the problem on to the next president.

Carol Morello and John Wagner sum up the dilemma this way:

Trump’s reluctance to commit to a new strategy to this point has reflected the paucity of good options. It also highlights a contradiction at the core of Trump’s foreign policy. On the campaign trail and in conversations with advisers, Trump has said he wants to win and project strength. But he also has called for ending costly commitments in places such as Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Before running for president, Trump was positively contemptuous of the idea of staying in Afghanistan. He would tweet things like “Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA,” and “We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let’s get out!” But once he became a candidate, he apparently began to consider the risks of a precipitous departure. In October 2015, he said that “We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place,” but allowed that if he were president, “I would leave the troops there, begrudgingly — believe me, I’m not happy about it,” because the Afghan government would collapse without the American presence to protect it.

So now, Trump will apparently announce the commitment of a few thousand more troops (at the moment we have about 8,400 troops there, as part of a multinational force totaling 13,000), combined with new demands on the Afghan government on matters such as fighting corruption. When he does, this is the question we should ask: Does anyone actually believe this is going to work? That because of this change, in some reasonable amount of time Afghanistan will become a stable nation that isn’t threatened with a takeover by the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State or any other extremist group? And that before long the United States will be able to leave without the Afghan government being overrun and the country becoming even more of a haven for terrorists and extremists than it is now?

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that this is the wrong thing to do because there’s a better way. That’s just the problem: There is no better way. We’ve been trying to find a better way for almost 16 years, and we still haven’t found it.

We should also be clear about something else: There isn’t much to admire in Barack Obama’s record on Afghanistan either. He ran in 2008 arguing that Afghanistan was the good war, the one we entered for the right reasons, unlike Iraq, and we should focus our energies there. Upon taking office, he initiated a “surge,” sending 30,000 more troops there and bringing the total to more than 100,000. In 2011, the numbers began to decline, and in 2014 he announced a plan to bring them all home by the end of 2016. But then before leaving office, he pulled back on the idea of complete withdrawal, saying it was necessary to maintain a presence there to prop up the Afghan government. After eight years, an end to the American presence there seemed no closer than when Obama took office.

I’m sure there are Republicans who would like to put that down to Obama’s fecklessness, but it isn’t as though there was some terrific plan sitting on a shelf that would have solved the problem and he wasn’t willing to adopt it. And for the record, Hillary Clinton barely mentioned Afghanistan in last year’s campaign, most likely because she didn’t have any better ideas either.

So now Trump — who has made his distaste for nation-building more than clear — is the third president to face this dilemma, and it looks as though he, too, will essentially choose the path of the status quo. That means not pulling out as Obama had hoped to do (but couldn’t), and not launching some full-scale re-invasion or even a surge of the magnitude Obama undertook early in his term. It means, instead, maintaining the American presence at a slightly larger level than it is now, trying to pressure the Afghan government to get its act together, and hoping against all experience that incremental progress will, step by step, take us to the place where Afghanistan is at last peaceful and stable and has institutions that can effectively govern the country without our help.

If there’s anyone who can honestly make the case that this plan will finally do the trick, I’m all ears. But it seems almost certain that Trump’s successor will have to come up with yet another plan to accomplish what all the other plans failed to do.

We’ve now been in Afghanistan for nearly 16 years. We’ve spent vast sums on this war, on the order of a couple trillion dollars. Around 2,400 Americans have given their lives, with thousands more gravely injured in body and mind. And we still have no idea how to end it. I suppose one can say that unlike on almost everything else he has done, Trump isn’t performing worse on Afghanistan than any other president. Which shows just how impossible a problem this is.

 

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Source : https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2017/08/21/trumps-strategy-on-afghanistan-let-the-next-president-figure-it-out/

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