In a teleprompter speech that was as inspiring as it was specific, Donald Trump offered a bold new vision for how the US war in Afghanistan will be conducted differently after 16 years: Say that this time we’re really going to make some big changes, no really, and we’ll be there forever until we either win or the war can be handed off to another president. In keeping with his campaign pledge that he would never telegraph his intentions to the enemy, Trump also refused to say anything specific about his intentions to Americans, either, since we might blab.
The “president” prefaced policy parts of the speech — such as they were — with a bit of damage control, saying that hatred and racism are bad, mmmkay? and that it would be a real shame if our soldiers abroad were to come home to a divided America where everyone is at each other’s throats. Expect him to undermine that “let’s all come together in love and peace for the sake of our country” the next time he gives an unscripted answer to a a question about Nazis.
Still, to spare our brave troops the sight of a divided America, Trump will be sending a lot more of them to Afghanistan.
Trump acknowledged that his strategy, whatever it is, ran counter to his original instincts and several years of tweets insisting Barack Obama was an idiot for continuing the war in Afghanistan:
My original instinct was to pull out — and, historically, I like following my instincts. But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office; in other words, when you’re President of the United States.
We think that was awfully nice of him to explain that sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office means being the president. A lot of people probably don’t know that. But Trump decided that a premature withdrawal was likely to leave nobody satisfied, and could create chaos in Afghanistan, especially if he just left without so much as breakfast.
In the most obvious baldfaced lie of the speech, Trump said the new plan came after “I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle,” which translates to I’m telling you what the generals have decided to do, and by Thursday I’ll have forgotten two thirds of it.
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Trump’s vague policy objectives included a shift away from specific deadlines for involvement in Afghanistan. Instead, the goal will be either victory or at least keeping the Taliban from taking over until either the Afghan government establishes firm control over the entire country or Trump can dump the mess in the lap of his successor. He will accomplish this by abandoning efforts at improving the Afghan government or trying to build sustainable institutions:
We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live, or how to govern their own complex society. We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.
One of the few sort-of specifics Trump announced was that he would pursue a much tougher line with the government of Pakistan, noting that while Pakistan is a “valued partner,” it’s also full of terrorists and it better clean up its act or else:
We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately […] It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace.
Nothing says “you’re a valuable partner and ally” like telling your valued ally they’re barbarians, after all. Trump also called for greater participation by India in building up Afghanistan’s economy, which should make Pakistan all kinds of happy.
Further, Trump said he’d make sure troops on the ground wouldn’t be hampered by too much micromanagement of the war from Washington, letting military commanders make decisions about objectives and targeting bad guys, or people we think are bad guys. Translation: Civilians are more expendable than ever, and since we’ll be super tough, there’s no way that could blow up in our faces.
While Trump insisted he wouldn’t talk about numbers of additional troops to be sent to Afghanistan, congressional sources briefed on the Pentagon’s plans said troop levels would rise by another 4,000 or so service members (there are over 8,500 in the country currently). That should certainly end the war somehow, even though America didn’t manage to win it when we had over 100,000 troops there under George W. Bush. But you see, this time we’re gonna let them win.
In yet another telling example of how the president makes decisions about matters of wordlwide importance, the Washington Post reports that H.R. McMaster resorted to visual aids to convince Trump that a complete change in Afghanistan really is a possibility:
One of the ways McMaster tried to persuade Trump to recommit to the effort was by convincing him that Afghanistan was not a hopeless place. He presented Trump with a black-and-white snapshot from 1972 of Afghan women in miniskirts walking through Kabul, to show him that Western norms had existed there before and could return.
As then-candidate Trump acknowledged in the Access Hollywood tape, he really is a sucker for a nice set of legs, so we’re committed to another buildup in Afghanistan.
Also, as always seems to happen, some poor schlub in the media fell for it, though you’d think by now they’d all know better:
OK, maybe he was being ironic.
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