Donald Trump is the seventh president since the end of World War II who inherited, on taking office, his predecessor’s war or the planning for one. And like most of these American presidents Trump decided that the most important strategic consideration was not to publicly lose a war on his watch.
No president wants to replicate the experience of Jerry Ford watching images of the last desperate helicopters taking off from the American embassy in Saigon as North Vietnamese troops battered down the gates.
Only Dwight Eisenhower — whose military self-confidence allowed him to fold an unwinnable hand — opted for a quick armistice to end the Korean War that he inherited. In contrast, an inexperienced John Kennedy went along with an ill-conceived Eisenhower-era plan for a CIA-backed invasion of Cuba.
Small wonder that Trump’s first prime-time speech to the nation Monday night was a bow to this presidential tradition of preferring expensive stalemate to any hint of withdrawal or defeat.
In a line that will always be identified with his Afghan policy, Trump admitted, “My original instinct was to pull out. And historically, I like following my instincts.”
But then Teleprompter Trump added — in an uncharacteristic acknowledgement of the majesty of the presidency — “But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”
Trump masked his Afghan about-face with muscular talk of victory, a word he used four times in the speech: “We will push onward to victory with power in our hearts [and] courage in our souls.” That was only topped by Trump’s six references to “win” (a concept alien to the experience of all foreign armies who have ever entered Afghanistan beginning with the British in the 19th century).
“I’m a problem-solver,” Trump boasted. “And in the end, we will win.” And in pep-rally fashion, the president declared, “Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win.”
The problem that Trump glossed over is that after 16 years, there is virtually no untried strategy for victory. Every policy change comes with its own complications.
Trump, for example, trumpeted that America is abandoning “nation-building,” a concept that dates back to the Vietnam War. Conservatives tend to ridicule as global social work any effort to build schools and buttress democratic institutions. As Trump put it bluntly, “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”
The problem in an Afghan context is that this supposed gimlet-eyed realism means an uncritical American embrace of local warlords. But squabbling warlords and their endemic corruption have helped power the Taliban insurgency that controls major chunks of the Afghan countryside and whose suicide bombers have made the Afghan capital of Kabul one of the most dangerous spots in the nation.
Trump, who still fancies himself a master negotiator, appears to believe that he can square the circle with India and Pakistan. On one hand, the president wants India “to help us more with Afghanistan.” On the other hand, Trump wants to bludgeon Pakistan into “partnering with our effort in Afghanistan.”
As duplicitous as Pakistan has been in sheltering Osama bin Laden and covertly supporting the Taliban, this nuclear-armed power also fears India’s enhanced influence in Afghanistan. By overtly tilting toward India, Trump is probably making true cooperation from Pakistan even more elusive.
Listening to the Trump speech, it was easy to hear echoes of that other endless American war called Vietnam.
Early in his presidency, Richard Nixon said to his Cabinet about the military quagmire that he inherited, “If we fail to end the war in a way that … will deny the aggressor his goals, the hawks in Communist nations will push for more and broader aggression.”
(The quote comes from John A. Farrell’s splendid new Nixon biography.)
Many of the illusions that accompanied Lyndon Johnson and Nixon’s Vietnam rhetoric could be found in Trump’s Afghan address.
The presidential warning to the hapless government in Kabul could have been directed at the feuding generals in Saigon: “America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress. However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check.”
The idea that the military’s hands have been tied in Afghanistan comes right out of the playbook of Vietnam hawks. As Trump said Monday night, “I have already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our warfighters that prevented the secretary of Defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy.”
And the entire history of the Vietnam War was riddled with appeals to our feckless allies to shoulder more of the burden. Trump echoed that call to action, “We will ask our NATO allies and global partners to support our new strategy, with additional troop and funding increases in line with our own. We are confident they will.”
The president’s secrets
The most inadvertently comic aspect of Trump’s speech to the nation was his I’ve-got-a-secret flourish, “We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.”
It obviously had not dawned on the president that Congress would demand to know precise troop levels before it appropriates additional funding for the Pentagon. Moreover, Trump seems to naively believe that the Taliban will be bamboozled if 6,000 additional U.S. troops arrive instead of the rumored 4,000.
There are reasons to continue an American role in Afghanistan if only to secure oases of modernity in Kabul and to serve as a base for operations against the Islamic State. But little of this limited mission could be detected in Trump’s words.
At the end of 2001, shortly after the Taliban were routed, I spent 10 days in Kabul. At one point as my car was followed by dozens of grinning small boys in cast-off shorts and T-shirts, I took a picture out the back window of these youngsters as a symbol of hope for an Afghan future.
Today, those small boys are in their mid-twenties. Some may be in the Afghan security forces. A few might have been recruited by the Taliban. But most, I suspect, are living quiet lives with their wives and children, still dreaming of an elusive peace.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.