“What did you think of the president’s speech on Afghanistan last night?”
That is the wrong question to ask. The more appropriate question is: Which policy did Trump endorse last night? His speech, like most of his prepared remarks, was fabulous because it was designed to placate conservatives after he adopted the policy of McCain, McMaster, and Mattis. That is the strategy of placing our troops into the meat-grinder to nation-build for the corrupt Sharia-based Kabul government, expose our soldiers to endless green-on-blue violence, and bring in thousands of refugees from among the Afghani soldiers. This point was underscored by Secretary Tillerson, who immediately countermanded Trump’s rhetorical focus on counter-terrorism and said he would foster peace talks with the Taliban. Look at the policy outcome, not at the speech.
Three previous troop surges (in 2008, 2009, and 2011) to train a corrupt and compromised Islamic government haven’t worked. But throwing 4,000 more troops at the same problem will now work? Really, Mr. President?
Sadly, the Ghani government has become like the insurance cartel, extorting us into keeping the failed status quo by threatening instability in the wake of any change.
Once again, we have President Trump delivering a speech that echoes the sentiments of his campaign rhetoric while describing a policy outcome that is clearly headed in the opposite direction. When you strip away Trump’s popular appeal about ending “nation-building,” holding Pakistan accountable, and killing terrorists, it’s clear the only strategy he is proposing is doubling down on failure with an indefinite commitment that will absolutely involve nation-building. While he was clearly dealt a bad hand from the Obama administration, a point we’ve covered in depth over the past two years, it is unacceptable to rule out withdrawal but fail to offer any clarity on the objective of a troop surge after 16 years of failure.
This is not 2004. The onus must now be placed on supporters of continuing the status quo to demonstrate why it will work. And his speech was not materially different from Obama’s promise to end nation-building when he announced the 2009 and 2011 surges, which led to the loss of over 1,000 U.S. troops. Remember, James Mattis was commander of CENTCOM during the peak of that surge, when we had 150,000 coalition forces. There’s no way a gradual increase of a few thousand troops is going to change anything.
Failure to define a mission and strategic interests
Nobody has addressed the core question of what we are doing there at this point.
Immediately following 9/11, Americans wanted blood. But the painful reality was that we were not attacked by a “country” that could be pulverized in response. We were attacked thanks to an irresponsible immigration system and domestic terror cells that had been allowed to fester in our own homeland thanks to political correctness. And we didn’t learn our lesson even after 9/11. Anwar al-Awlaki was holding court in the Pentagon lunch room just weeks after his disciples flew planes into the building! Yet, we turned to Afghanistan and then Iraq as scapegoats to express our anger.
The response to 9/11, at its core, should have been more focused on immigration, homeland security, intelligence, clamping down on the subversion agenda on our soil, and using soft power against those who fund the terror networks abroad. Yes, Afghanistan was a staging ground for much of Al Qaeda, but as a nation, it was a wasteland. The Saudis, Qataris, and Turks were an even bigger problem and hold all the wealth that has sustained these terror networks. Not to mention Iran, which stood at the nexus of both the Shiite- and Sunni-funded Jihad. Perforce, the 9/11 plot was created more in Saudi Arabia and Iran than in the Hindu Kush.
Yet, we felt the need to express our grief and had to choose a target. We chose to double down on failed immigration policies and failed alliances, ignoring the direct threats that would have cost us little to confront. Instead, we jumped head-first into Islamic civil wars that we were forced to own at an enormous cost. In the case of Afghanistan, it was 2,258 fatalities, over 20,000 wounded, and hundreds of billions of dollars — funds that could have built up missile defense. And after 16 years we are still going strong. Whatever ancillary interest one can conjure up as a defense for involvement, nothing is worth such a cost, especially when there are so many other strong plays we can make in both homeland security policy and foreign policy that directly address the threat with a much cheaper price tag.
Following 9/11, we were akin to a suburban homeowner whose home was burglarized because he forgot to lock the doors before he went out for the day. While the victim most certainly feels extremely frustrated, and there are definitely some things he could do to advocate tough-on-crime policies in his neighborhood and city, the core problem was his own failure to lock the door.
Now imagine if such a family, as a way of assuaging their grief, chose to keep their doors unlocked but sent their family and friends downtown to the inner city and attempted to referee five-way gang turf wars and hold ground in the inner city. Imagine them doing so under the mantra of “If we don’t fight them there, they’ll come here!”
That is the mistake of the past 16 years in a nutshell.
A new focus doesn’t mean withdrawal of leadership
We must certainly remain strong in the world after shutting down mass migration from the Middle East and clamping down on preachers of subversion and terror networks on our own soil, and indeed, in our own government. But the way to project strength is to make our enemies fight each other in furtherance of our interests, not for us to fight their battles in furtherance of their interests.
We must conserve our resources and resolve for Iran, North Korea, and other threats from nation-states that could directly attack us and our strategic interests. We need to focus on state actors and financiers that have assets that actually fund the Islamic threat. There is no money in Afghanistan; it’s a poor wasteland with a bunch of mud huts. Yes, the Taliban are bad, but sadly, they are a reflection of the people living there. This is a painful reality we continue to overlook. We can always destroy a regime or temporarily kill off the senior leadership and command structure of a terror group. However, in these countries, including Syria and Iraq, they are merely representative of the constituencies and the population. Any surge would net modest results initially by killing the existing terrorists, but in the long run, the popular support of the people will always germinate a resurgence or the creation of new terror groups. This is the nut we’ve failed to crack after years of involvement in tribal civil wars.
Rather than trying to own Afghanistan, we must use the Arab momentum against Qatar to end its funding of jihad and Turkey’s empowerment of both Sunni jihadists and Iran. Threatening to expel Turkey from NATO costs us much less than owning Afghanistan for 100 years and actually speaks to the core problem of funding subversion on our soil.
Yet, sadly, despite Trump’s rhetoric, his administration has been extremely weak on Qatar, has downright aligned itself with Erdogan, and is too close to Russia and too weak on Iran, both of which would fund any problematic elements in Afghanistan.
While we need to engage in battle overseas from time to time, our ultimate goal is to ensure their boots don’t land on our ground, not to place our boots on their ground. Our foreign policy should be focused on use of soft power to cut off terror funding and influence while preserving our military deterrent for where it is needed. Here’s what that looks like:
As you can see, this is hardly a pacifist agenda.
Many of my colleagues have expressed concern about appearing weak and “cutting and running” from Afghanistan. But were we to take a holistic approach to homeland security and Islamic terror, starting with the above list of changes, it would become clear that we are not retreating from our interests; we are doubling down on our interests while retreating from their interests. Do we really want babies born to soldiers in 2001 to be refereeing and training the same Islamic government their parents worked for a generation ago?
Besides, it is quite evident that at some point we will wind up withdrawing from Afghanistan. The questions are how many lives and how much money will we waste before doing so and whether we will do it from a position of strength so we can focus our counter-terrorism efforts where they’re needed. We need to move away from counter-insurgency and focus on homeland security at home and strategic counter-terrorism, effective projection of soft power, and making the right alliances abroad.
Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.