Donald Trump is a maverick and a chronic disrupter, but now we know there can be exceptions. On Monday contained the words: “strategy will change dramatically”. Yet a closer look suggests rather the contrary. No radical break with the Obama years was on offer. The obsession was to appear to introduce change, rather than to deliver it.
Like previous US presidents, Mr Trump wants people to believe that he will act differently from his predecessor. Remember how, in its early days, the George W Bush administration promised that US soldiers would no longer patrol the streets of faraway lands. Or how Barack Obama came into office wanting to unwind “a decade of wars”. In office, events and circumstances dictate more than electoral pledges. Mr Trump has now admitted as much on Afghanistan . His original instinct “was to pull out”, but “decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval office,” he said. He has duly announced that the US will stay on, and will even add more troops – in as yet .
How to proceed in presents an exceptionally complex challenge. Mistakes were made long before Mr Trump inherited the problem. The country has known only war ever since the 1979 Soviet invasion. Western troops have been deployed for almost 16 years against the Taliban. The conflict is not only an open wound of human suffering; it also remains a strategic headache. That Mr Trump in the end took the advice of the generals in his top team may reveal the evolving nature of a post-Bannon administration. But it also reflects the scale of a genuine quandary.
Afghanistan is the story of a dramatic mismatch between a complex web of local realities and the overly ambitious UN-sponsored plans forged in the aftermath of 9/11. This was never an illegal war, but it went . Its initial goal was rational: depriving terrorists of a safe haven. This then morphed into a 40-nation coalition whose objectives became blurred: concerns for international security blended with costly attempts at nation-building. Instead of keeping to a light footprint, Nato launched a large-scale, on-the-ground deployment, including in rural Pashtun regions where the foreign military presence was bound to reignite age-old hostility towards any occupier. This, as much as Pakistan’s opaque calculations, created the breeding ground for a return of the Taliban insurgency. Western troops are down to 12,000 these days, compared with the 140,000 deployed in 2011 at the peak of the operation. But past errors have left a mess that Mr Trump is right to point out he has inherited, not created.
The policy, it turns out, will be more of the same. Was there a genuine alternative? Mr Obama had already refocused the effort on targeted counterterrorism and the bolstering of Afghan security forces. Attempts at getting the Taliban to the negotiating table came and went – which doesn’t mean they should be abandoned. Mr Trump’s plan includes the novelty of exerting more open pressure on Pakistan, which stands accused of harbouring militant groups. But it is hard to see how that can be squared with a deepening of the US “partnership with India”. Subtle diplomatic footwork is not this administration’s strong point, especially with a weakened state department. Mr Trump’s speech was long on promises to “win”, but short on troubling new complexities, such as China’s push for influence, and indications of a Russian covert rapprochement with factions.
The American public is war-weary. Yet Mr Trump is right to say the US cannot turn its back on Afghanistan. Too much is at stake for south Asia’s future. That Isis has taken a foothold increases the sense of urgency. Leaving a vacuum would allow it to thrive, with potentially calamitous results in and far beyond the region. The US’s longest war is also the war it cannot afford to quit with the stroke of a pen. US allies, which Trump now wants to call on for “support” with “additional troops and funding increases”, have been put on notice. Afghanistan may have all along been , but it is just as much a conflict that cannot be lost without dire consequences.
This was arguably Mr Trump’s most realistic foreign policy statement thus far – not a high hurdle to clear but a carefully scripted, sober assessment nevertheless. Yet incremental steps are not a convincing new road map. Afghans know all too painfully that one speech alone will not bring their country any closer to peace.