Photo:US President Donald Trump meeting with General Joseph Votel. Courtesy of US Central Command.
After a tumultuous week President Trump had spent on an on-and-off vacation, he returned and attempted to emphasize his role as commander-in-chief by unveiling his policies for the War in Afghanistan. Trump was characteristically noncommittal and vague, but he was also uncharacteristically uncharismatic. Standing in front of a military audience, Trump delivered a message of returning to power and victory in a mostly muted, tired and quiet tone.
Trump did not lay out many exact policy points, such as whether there would be troop increases (though they are expected). However, Trump did make clear his goal and focus in Afghanistan: Win. In this case, winning means killing members of the Taliban and other terrorist sects in Afghanistan, not nation building.
Trump’s most emphatic moment came when he explicitly rejected the idea that the U.S. would shape and build Afghanistan. “We will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their complex society,” the President said. Speaking in the boisterous tone he uses at rallies, “We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.”
While President Trump claims to represent a change, his policies may not be that different from past administrations’. “Killing terrorists” and “nation building” in many ways go hand-in-hand, as a stable Afghani government would be necessary to military operations there. Keeping the rickety, divided government in Afghanistan upright will likely have all the facets of nation building: Supporting one side over the other, upholding a democratic system, plenty of money spent, and plenty of lives lost.
It is hardly unreasonable for Trump to want the War in Afghanistan to look different. As of now, the Taliban has made major pushes against the Afghani government and shows no signs of relenting. For the U.S. the conflict is costly, distant, and nearing two decades long. Naturally, Trump wants to change that– the issue is that there might not be much room for change.
In his speech, President Trump focused on leveraging America’s diplomatic power to create that change. He declared he would not give blank checks to Afghanistan and that his administration would push Pakistan to fight harder against terrorist organizations within its own borders. Yet, it may not be possible to play hardball with either country without losing them.
In recent months, the Taliban has looked as strong as ever, and one Afghani general estimated they control as much as 60 percent of the country. If support is withdrawn from Pakistan, its leaders could turn even further to China. China’s conflicts with India make it a more natural ally than the U.S. The reality on the ground restrains Trump, limiting the drama to his rhetoric, and even the rhetoric lacked the usual reckless verve.