Between the solutionless horror of North Korean nukes and the self-inflicted damage of Twitter diplomacy lies a decision that, while important in itself, will indicate a great deal about the foreign policy philosophy and geopolitical strategy of the Trump administration. What will the president do about the war in Afghanistan?
The good news? The choices are being clarified in a context that is the clearest strength of the Trump presidency: his first-rate national security staff. Any meeting that includes Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster is a convening of the counterinsurgency A-team. Both are part of the “surge generation” of military officers who helped retrieve the Iraq War from disaster. Both know what near-defeat looks and smells like, and what might be involved in achieving slow, partial, conflicted progress. Both know the consequences of abandoning the battlefield before success is assured, and the high cost of cleaning up after that mistake.
President Donald Trump is in the process of being presented with a range of choices concerning Afghanistan. This type of review generally yields a Goldilocks-inspired briefing book, including a high-commitment option, a low-commitment option and a middle-range approach (which is often the one that the staff really likes).
According to recent press accounts, McMaster’s preferred option might include a mini-surge in troops; greater resources for military and police training; efforts to improve Afghan governance; an increased pace of operations against the Taliban; and no artificial timetable for American withdrawal. The goal would be to strengthen President Ashraf Ghani’s government just enough, and weaken the Taliban just enough, that some kind of peace settlement could be negotiated.
This is conceived as a sustained effort, unlike President Barack Obama’s reluctant, time-limited Afghan surge. The cost of the McMaster approach has been estimated at $23 billion a year – which is a serious commitment, given that Afghanistan’s entire gross domestic product was less than $20 billion in 2015.
None of this has been decided. And who knows how and what Trump will decide. But he will face (at least) two major problems if he agrees to anything in the reported range.
First, Trump and his team will need to convince Congress and the country that Ghani’s government – which has high ambitions and few capabilities – is a credible partner. Mattis and McMaster have recently been to Kabul. What evidence did they find that the Afghan government could absorb added help?
Second, the president will have difficulty communicating a decision of this type because it sounds suspiciously like nation-building. And it would be nation-building in all but name.
Trump is facing the inescapable logic of internationalism. It is true that America can’t be everywhere in the world. But America can be struck by threats emerging anywhere in the world (with Afghanistan as Exhibit A). Preventing those threats requires the ability to strike from a distance (with drones, missiles and special operations) and the existence of capable partners and proxies who control and police their own territory.
How are partners and proxies strengthened? By providing military hardware and the skills to use it. By training police who are governed by the rule of law. By encouraging effective, non-corrupt governance. By encouraging health and economic opportunity as alternatives to resentment and radicalism.
This is the reality that Trump is discovering in his first contact with the problems of the world. America needs to employ non-military tools of influence – things like training and foreign assistance – precisely because they can reduce the need for large-scale military interventions. Putting America first actually requires putting our partners in a generous and respected second.
America eventually needs a capable, non-radical government in Afghanistan that controls as much of its own territory as possible. This will not be achieved by bombing the hell out of the Taliban alone. It will also not be achieved without bombing the hell out of the Taliban, since they have no current incentive to come to the peace table.
Only one of these facts – the bombing-the-hell-out-of-the-enemy part – fits Trump’s instincts. But somehow he will need to understand – and explain to the American public – the strengthening-our-partners element. Trump should take comfort in the fact that George W. Bush made a similar transition. He ran against Clintonian nation-building in his 2000 campaign. Yet in his second inaugural address, in 2005, Bush located American success in the success and freedom of others.
As a speechwriter I was along for the ride on this learning curve, which bent dramatically on Sept. 11, 2001. Because Afghanistan, of all places, had been forgotten.
Michael Gerson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.