With regards to Afghanistan, President Trump's State of the Union address offered a subtle but stinging rebuke to former President Obama and his foreign policy genius, Ben Rhodes. It came via the following line:
Our warriors in Afghanistan also have new rules of engagement. Along with their heroic Afghan partners, our military is no longer undermined by artificial timelines, and we no longer tell our enemies our plans.
Three points stand out here.
First, Trump referenced his decision to reverse the restrictive rules of engagement the Obama administration had applied to U.S. commanders. Those rules often delayed or prevented the use of airstrikes for troops in combat against the Taliban and other terrorist groups. While motivated by the moral concern of protecting civilian lives, Obama's rules allowed the enemy excessive freedom of movement and left Afghan forces — who now lead the fight against the Taliban — far more vulnerable than needed.
Second, Trump drew a contrast between his own policy and Obama's 2009 West Point speech, in which Obama pledged to increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan and then begin withdrawing them in 2011. That idiotic announcement sent the signal to the Taliban, the Haqqani network and hardline elements of the Pakistani ISI that they only needed to wait America out. And it sent an implicit message to America's Afghan partners: "You'd better not rely on us for the long term."
The artificial timeline was the height of folly: enough to make Carl von Clausewitz turn over in his grave.
Then came Trump's final point: "We no longer tell our enemies our plans."
It might seem simplistic, but it's important. It's important because the Obama administration made a fetish out of broadcasting its disinterest in a long-term presence in Afghanistan and its desperation to get out of that country as soon as possible, security considerations be damned.
That choice endangered U.S. security and was morally decrepit.
To be sure, progress in Afghanistan is too slow and U.S. policy objectives are likely too optimistic (opium production, for example, is something we should accept in the interests of a realist compromise with the various Pashtun tribes of Helmand province). In addition, the Trump administration should be condemned if it is attempting to classify the latest Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction report on progress in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, the U.S. has important strategic interests in helping to maintain the Afghan government in Kabul and in supporting its slow efforts to improve Afghanistan's security and Afghan lives.