President Donald Trump’s long-awaited Afghanistan plan was short on substance, but its implications deserve careful examination. What was unsaid – but should have been said – is that the president is calling on us to spend more treasure and spill lots more blood in Afghanistan.
As a matter of military strategy, Trump’s proposal to use “conditions on the ground” rather than numbers of troops or a timetable for withdrawal is a superior metric for defining progress and success. However, if all of us are being called upon to spend tax dollars and some of us are to bear an even heavier burden in blood, we deserve to know at least the general terms of those conditions.
Do they include Afghan government control of some percentage of the land mass? A reduced level of enemy activity? Freedom of movement? A security force that can sustain itself with minimal coalition support? A strategy isn’t really a strategy without a defined end state.
Whether Trump himself knows it or not, he is calling on at least some Americans to give their lives to meet those conditions, whatever they are.
Over the last several years the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan was to transition direct combat to the Afghans while the U.S. provided training, advice, logistical support to the security force and assistance in strengthening governmental institutions. This shift from our earlier strategy in the “surge phase” has been reflected in the reduced loss of life among U.S. troops.
In 2016, the U.S. suffered nine killed in action, compared to 2010 when 499 service men and women lost their lives. Meanwhile, in 2016 more than 5,000 Afghan military personnel were killed in action.
Trump’s new strategy to have the U.S. once again engage more directly in combat, attack the enemy wherever they may be found – including Pakistan – and expand the rules of engagement will increase U.S. casualties. Attacking the insurgent strongholds in Pakistan will surely diminish insurgent operations, but it will also expand the scope of U.S. exposure to risk, akin to the U.S. invading Cambodia during the Vietnam war.
While Trump said emphatically that we are “not nation-building,” he also said – at the same time – that “Afghanistan must carry their share of military, political and economic burden.” Nobody in Washington knows better than National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, whose last job in Afghanistan was to lead the coalition’s anti-corruption efforts, that without U.S. support this is an impossible task.
While we may not call it “nation-building,” Trump needs to let Americans know that tax dollars will be spent to assist in building sustainable government institutions – otherwise even if the battle is won, it won’t be for long.
Most interestingly in his speech, Trump opened the door to the Taliban to negotiate an end to the conflict. Coming from someone who five days earlier described his strategy for dealing with terrorists as executing Muslim prisoners with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, this was astounding.
Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal have long said that we could not kill our way out of Afghanistan, that in order to attain a lasting peace the government would have to provide stability and security and then be prepared for the Taliban to come to the table.
Less than a year ago Trump described the military generals as “reduced to rubble.” It appears they have come a long way.
Thomas Umberg, a retired Army colonel, is a former member of the California Assembly and currently a partner at the law firm Umberg Zipser LLP. He served three overseas tours, including Afghanistan. Reach him at email@example.com.