Editorial: In Afghanistan, Trump choosing the best path
Donald Trump is now the third American president saddled with the intractable problem of Afghanistan. His strategy for pursuing a war in that south Asian country was not one he had wanted to embrace. But in the end, it was the only course he could take to protect the interests of the United States.
Trump, who ran on a promise to disentangle America from the affairs of other nations, and particularly to end the quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq, last week gave the OK for a troop an increase that experts predict will add 3,000-5,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
In doing so, Trump committed the nation to a long-term presence there, one that may outlast his presidency. This new strategy is an acknowledgment that there is no quick fix for Afghanistan.
Taking the advice of his generals, Trump agreed to substantially add to the training and assist forces supporting the Afghan army.
To his credit, former President Barack Obama recognized that Afghanistan had to take responsibility for its own security. He pursued a strategy that built the native forces to 300,000, and set them against the Taliban insurgents.
But his aggressive draw down of U.S. troops left the Afghans with too little support, and his strict rules of engagement often prevented the ones left from taking a more active role when needed.
“The result is that we are burning through the Afghan army,” says James Carafano, a foreign policy expert with the Heritage Foundation. “It’s not a sustainable strategy. And that’s what the military complained about.”
Under the Trump plan, U.S. forces will get down to the tactical level, providing better ground and air fire support coordination, more logistical support and better medical evacuation aid.
Carafano says the new approach is informed by both the successes and failures of the previous administrations.
The Bush administration let Afghanistan fester while it pursued Saddam Hussein in Iraq. And Obama, in its too rapid withdrawal from Iraq and lack of engagement in Syria, left the door open for ISIS.
This new Afghanistan strategy should allow the country to sustain a fighting force in the field strong enough to deplete the Taliban. It will also extract a cost from those in neighboring Pakistan who profit from aiding the Taliban.
It changes the goal of a negotiated power sharing agreement with the Taliban to one that presses for its defeat, disarmament and reintegration, according to Carafano’s analysis.
It also seeks to engage India in economic development efforts in Afghanistan.
Trump avoided specifying the number of new troops that are being deployed to Afghanistan, and did not set a timetable for accomplishing the mission, so the Taliban will not be able to hole up and let the clock tick down.
“What we have now is a clear mission and strategy for accomplishing what we want to achieve,” Carafano says.
How long will that take? “I think it’s indefinite,” Carafano says. “That’s one of the reasons Trump struggled so much with the decision.”
Having laid out a new strategy, the president is obliged to sell the American people on why stabilizing Afghanistan is in the interest of the United States.
It is essential that Afghanistan not be allowed to become an ongoing source of regional instability, in the manner of Iraq and Syria. Nor can it become a launching pad for international terror.
After 16 years, $700 billion and 2,000 lives, Afghanistan is not where Americans want to be. But the price for leaving now is too high to pay.