Expert opinion sceptical on Trump’s approach to Afghanistan

President Trump reaffirmed the US commitment to Afghanistan in a speech on 21 August that is expected to include the deployment of more US troops, but he did not specify the number and said there will be no timetable for the mission. The NATO Secretary General has welcomed the President’s new Afghan strategy. Expert opinion, however, is mixed with many sceptical voices.

Thomas L. Friedman, foreign affairs Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times, described President Trump’s speech as “full of bombast and clichés, so larded with phrases like ‘we will break their will’, so lacking in details and, most of all, so lacking in humility in confronting a problem and a region that has vexed better men for ages that I still don’t know where he’s going — only that he is going there very definitively”.

Similarly, Simon Tisdall, assistant editor of The Guardian said that the President had “committed the US to waging an open-ended conflict with no limit on its scope or duration, and with no agreed measure of what constitutes victory”. He also compared Donald Trump to the Grand Old Duke of York and his 10,000 men, a symbol of military muddle-headedness, incompetence and futility immortalised in the English nursery rhyme.

Not all the commentary has been critical. Some albeit heavily caveated supportive comments came from Meghan O’Sullivan, Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School and former deputy US national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan. She considers that “removing an arbitrary timeline from the US Afghan strategy will make it a significantly different approach than that tried under Obama -- with better prospects for success”. The main caveat is that the speech needs to be part of a much more developed strategy, otherwise “the kudos he gets for resisting a more politically popular short-term approach will be meaningless in the face of a long-term strategy full of unresolved contradictions”.

There was also some sympathy for the presidential dilemma from retired US Navy Admiral James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, who said that Trump chose the “least worst” of “3 bad options” in Afghanistan. The first two options were, first, to “cut our losses and run after 2,400 dead and $800 billion spent” and second, “go back to the big force”, for which “nobody has an appetite”. According to Stavridis, this left a “minimalist” middle option, and “the least-worst option the president was presented with”.

Stavridis also claims that the increase in troops allows the US and its allies to move towards “the best possible” Afghanistan endgame: “a democracy, a nation that has minimalist but some control over its borders, keeping the Taliban out of the major population centres and over time, a political, diplomatic solution that brings the Taliban into a conversation about peace in Afghanistan”.

Others picture either a continuing stalemate or a negative endgame. David Ignatius, foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post, for example, says that the Trump strategy “reduces the probability that the Kabul government will collapse over the next two to three years. This is a very limited version of success”. So beyond all the earlier lofty talk of democracy and nation-building, after 16 years the current strategy seemingly boils down to the US avoiding defeat in Afghanistan during Trump’s watch – although as outlined by Friedman, such a defeat is inevitable. While he sees a “glimmer of hope” for US strategy in Iraq, where US forces have returned at the invitation of Iraqis and the presence is more legitimate and sustainable, says that “the war in Afghanistan is different”. He concludes that: “For the moment — and I stress moment — we have a sustainable military strategy to defeat ISIS in Iraq. But a sustainable political outcome depends on Iraqis rising to the occasion. I do not see that in Afghanistan and I did not hear it in Trump’s speech. I fear our choices there are unchanged: lose early, lose late, lose big or lose small”.