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The Slim Chances That President Trump’s Afghanistan Policy Will Succeed: Let’s Look Honestly at Recent History

A. Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner

Last night, Donald Trump took full ownership of the war in
Afghanistan, a war he has criticized for years. By Trump’s
own admission, and that of his secretary of defense, that war has
been going very poorly. Using his first nationally televised
prime-time address to articulate a new strategy for
“winning,” Trump has firmly yoked his legacy to making
serious progress in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately for Trump, and even worse for the United States,
this war will not end in victory.

The first problem with Trump’s strategy is his
full-throated embrace of a vague and expansive definition of
American goals, which now include “attacking our enemies,
obliterating ISIS, crushing Al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from
taking over Afghanistan …” Why does Trump believe that
the United States can solve these problems now when solutions have
eluded both of his predecessors for the past 16 years?

In the end, Trump’s bold
claims about keeping America safe by going on the offensive in
Afghanistan ring hollow.

Disrupting Al Qaeda was a discrete and achievable goal, one
quickly realized in 2001. But defeating Al Qaeda “and every
terrorist group of global reach” was not. When nations
— even powerful ones like the United States — identify
impossible tasks as their goals, they are doomed to fail.

Beyond that, although Trump claimed his strategy represents a
clear break from the past, it is so far only a slightly more
muscular version of the policy he inherited from Obama. And, in
fact, it remains a much less forceful version of Obama’s
surge in 2009 and 2010, when the total number of American troops
reached 100,000. That surge provided only temporary and partial
relief to the Afghan government. There is no evidence, from the
Trump administration or elsewhere, to suggest that things will be
different this time. The facts on the ground are stubborn and
longstanding. Neither a few thousand more troops nor a few more
years will tame the Taliban or turn the tide of the conflict.

Nor should the public believe that there is anything new in
Trump’s focus on Pakistan. Though the President is right to
reconsider the aid the U.S. provides to Pakistan given its support
of the Taliban, Trump’s call to hold Pakistan accountable
amounts to a recycling of previous U.S. efforts. In 2001, the U.S.
put “extraordinary pressure” on Pakistan. In 2006, the
U.S. praised Pakistan for its “unfaltering” fight
against terrorism. A similar to and fro continued during the Obama
presidency. None of these efforts have amounted to much to date.
Carrying them too far, on the other hand, may amplify the conflict
in Pakistan, further destabilizing the region.

In the end, Trump’s bold claims about keeping America safe
by going on the offensive in Afghanistan ring hollow. The truth is
that for all the talk of terrorism safe havens and American
influence, neither propping up Afghanistan nor defeating the
Taliban are necessary to ensure American security.

Al Qaeda, the threat that justified the invasion in the first
place, is a pale shadow of its former self, nor is Afghanistan a
safe haven for ISIS. Sadly, the greatest danger to Americans comes
not from terrorists based overseas, but from people living in the
United States who decide to commit violent acts.

After more than 2,400 American casualties and hundreds of
billions of dollars spent in Afghanistan over the past 16 years,
there is still no end in sight to America’s longest war. But
rather than acknowledge the United States has done all it could
there, Trump’s strategy ensures that the United States will
keep paying a steep price for continued failure in Afghanistan.

Trump may also pay a political price for Afghanistan. He
admitted that his initial instinct was to pull out of Afghanistan,
but that was before he “studied Afghanistan in great detail
and from every conceivable angle.” Having successfully
attacked Obama for continuing failed policies in the war on terror,
there is little upside for Trump with his “America
First” base. If U.S. efforts in Afghanistan don’t
“work quickly” as the President promised, he will have
provided potential opponents — both Democratic and Republican
— with a powerful issue with which to attack him in 2020.

A. Trevor
Thrall
is senior fellow in defense and foreign policy at the
Cato Institute and associate professor in the Schar School of
Policy and Government at George Mason University. Erik Goepner
commanded military units in Afghanistan and Iraq and is a visiting
research fellow at the Cato Institute and doctoral candidate at
George Mason University.