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Rex Tillerson totally undercut Trump’s ‘We will win’ rhetoric on Afghanistan

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke Aug. 22 about President Trump's speech on U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan. (Video: Reuters)

President Trump assured us Monday night — repeatedly — that the United States will win the war in Afghanistan. But his secretary of state would apparently like to set the bar considerably lower than that.

In a classic case of Trump's big talk running into stubborn realities — almost immediately — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday afternoon played down the idea that the U.S. military would walk away from Afghanistan with a victory.

He addressed the Taliban directly: “You will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you.”

“We may not win one” is quite a different tune than the one Trump was singing Monday night. “We will always win,” he began one thought. “I'm a problem-solver, and in the end, we will win,” he added. Also: “Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition.” And: “The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory. They deserve the tools they need and the trust they have earned to fight and to win.”

Win. Win. Win. Win. Victory. Victory. Win.

This is Trump's mode, of course, and he apparently can't shake it. Everything is winning — so much winning that people will get tired of winning. Winning isn't so much an outcome as it is a strategy. What's your plan for the economy? To win, of course. For health care? To have the best coverage at reduced costs; to win. The Islamic State? To “obliterate” it — a total victory. Afghanistan? A “clear” win.

But a clear victory is something that basically any military expert will tell you is very difficult to foresee (much less predict) in Afghanistan — especially with only a few thousand more troops on top of already-far-reduced troop levels and an apparently limited amount of patience from the commander in chief. In light of Trump's comments, The Washington Post's Carlos Lozada noted what Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, who was then Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's chief of operations, said in that fateful (for McChrystal) 2010 Rolling Stone article: “It's not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win,” Mayville said. “This is going to end in an argument.”

That's too much nuance for Trump, but Tillerson recognizes it. And the secretary seemed to walk back Trump's comments in another portion of Tuesday's presser.

“We believe that we can turn the tide of what has been a losing battle over the last year and a half or so and at least stabilize the situation and, hopefully, start seeing some battlefield victories on the part of the Afghan forces,” Tillerson said.

“At least stabilize the situation.” Again, that's wildly different from the tone Trump set Monday. It's almost as if they aren't even working together on this. It's almost as if Trump's top aides are completely uncomfortable with his tendency to over-promise, especially when it comes to what many have labeled a quagmire.

The question is which definition of success will prevail and bring an end to the war. Is the goal “stabilizing the situation” and preventing the Taliban from winning, or is it total and complete victory for the U.S. military? Tillerson's goals are more based in reality, but they're not exactly inspiring for troops who are deployed or will be in the future. And Trump is clearly bent on declaring victory, no matter how resounding the eventual outcome is.

Add it to the pile of things that are still very unclear after the president's speech Monday night.