President Trump's Afghanistan speech on Monday night was disciplined, measured, and sometimes verging on eloquence. It was presidential. Evidently, his vision wasn't impaired when he looked at the eclipse without smoked glasses earlier in the day.
Like Barack Obama, Trump came to office determined to get out of Afghanistan. "My original instinct was to pull out," he said Monday. But "decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk on the Oval Office."
Trump criticized Obama's 2011 decision to "hastily and mistakenly" withdraw from Iraq, and for announcing an endpoint to his 2009 surge of troops into Afghanistan. Trump said he was shifting "from a time-based approach to one based on conditions."
Also on the way out are "restrictions the previous administration placed on our war fighters that prevented the secretary of defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy.
This delegation to military commanders is evidently paying off in Iraq and may do so in Afghanistan as well. Certainly, it gives enemy leaders less notice of what they may be facing. "These killers need to know that they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms."
Permanently putting the Taliban and other enemies on the back foot seems to be the sum of Trump's strategy. His "clear definition" of victory was as follows: "Attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing Al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terrorist attacks against America before they emerge."
Lacking here is at endpoint, not just a Battleship Missouri moment of unconditional surrender, but also a transfer of responsibility to a reformed and responsible Afghan government. Trump has repeatedly repudiated "nation-building" and he dubbed his alternative "principled realism." He pledged to work with the Afghan government only "as long as we see determination and progress" but "our patience is not unlimited."
Critics have complained that Trump provided no specific numbers of troops, as previous presidents have done. Evidently, he's not talking about any big increase from the current level of around 8,000.
Looking at that number — so far below those earlier surges, and dwarfed by the 550,000 U.S. troops that were in Vietnam a half-century ago and the 12 million Americans at arms during World War II — it struck me that we're looking at something like the approach of nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain in its far-flung empire and environs, which at various times included both Afghanistan and Iraq.
The British military patrolled the empire with small forces of volunteers as the Royal Navy protected the global commons of the seas. It encountered occasional grave setbacks, including in Afghanistan and against Muslim jihadists, but mostly prevailed in enforcing a benign world order.
This is the role Trump seems to have come to embrace, against his own inclinations and certainly not in those terms, and in the process he is not above muscling other nations to behave themselves.
He is refraining from demanding democracy from Afghan leaders, but is advising them to avoid America's displeasure. Perhaps more significantly, he is leaning hard against Pakistan and the military which tends to control it. "We can no longer be silent about Pakistan's safe havens for terrorist organizations," he said, "and that will have to change."
If not, he is prepared to call in India "to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development."
Pakistan's military leaders, as its former ambassador to the U.S. Hussain Haqqani writes in his history Magnificent Delusions, has always regarded India as its chief enemy and the United States as a tool they can manipulate. Trump seems to be telling them that that game is over.
Just as a reminder, he noted, "I have made clear that our allies and partners must contribute much more money to our collective defense. And they have done so."
The longtime (off and on from 1830 to 1865) British foreign secretary and prime minister Lord Palmerston said his nation has no permanent allies or enemies, but did have permanent interests. Trump, who may never have heard of Palmerston, seems to have decided that our interests no longer coincide with those of the Pakistan military.
Palmerstonian policies enjoyed political support and served Britain and the world well for many years. Will Trump's policies do so well?