President Trump delivered a muscular speech about his new strategy in Afghanistan on Monday night. And in true Trump style, it was full of style, tone and tough talk, with relatively little to grab hold of.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway was Trump's insistence on force — “overwhelming force,” as he put it. “We will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our own image; those days are now over,” he said.
Trump added in another section of the speech: “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”
And another: “Our troops will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over the country and stopping mass terror attacks against Americans before they emerge.”
If only someone had thought of this before!
The problem is that this is not a “clear definition” of victory; it is a series of nebulous goals that pretty much any U.S. president would subscribe to. It does not give us a sense for what will truly change about the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, nor does it shed light on when it will ever end.
In another section of his speech, Trump nodded to the difficulties of foreign policy that you don't know about until you are commander in chief. And to his credit, he acknowledged his own flip-flop on Afghanistan, having previously urged a hasty withdrawal. “My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts,” he said, “but all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”
It's also notable that Trump says his strategy isn't to nation-build. But “winning” and “attacking our enemies” and “obliterating ISIS” have all been well-established goals of the United States' wars in the Middle East. Nation-building wasn't something undertaken as a favor to the countries we invaded so much as a necessary nuisance when it comes to preventing future terrorists who may exploit a leadership vacuum. If Trump's goal is to 100 percent stop “mass terror attacks against Americans,” then leaving an unstable Afghanistan is a problem — unless all potential terrorists are eliminated, which seems a completely unattainable goal with only a few thousand troops added to the already far-reduced troop levels.
Other aspects of Trump's approach weren't new at all. He said there wasn't a "blank check" for U.S. investment in Afghanistan, which is what Barack Obama said. He also said he would shift from "a time-based approach to one based on conditions," which sounds a lot like the Bush administration's approach.
The speech, more than anything, seemed to be Trump attempting to marry his previous noninterventionist tendencies with a hawkish foreign policy he has happened upon as commander in chief — saying the United States will kick ass overseas but that it will cease doing so whenever it pleases and whenever his opaque goals are realized.
But as Trump's evolution on Afghanistan shows, these things are very complicated. As he did before with his “get out now” withdrawal talk in the early part of this decade, Trump tried to reduce it to simple rhetoric on Monday night, while declining to give many specifics. That may allow him to claim success in the future, but it doesn't really tell us what his foreign policy is — or what the way forward in Afghanistan is.