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Trump Goes from Afghanistan War Skeptic to True Believer

Christopher A. Preble

In his address to the nation on Monday evening,
President Donald Trump explained that his “original
instinct,” when he came into office, “was to pull
out” of Afghanistan. But “decisions are much different
when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office,” and so he,
like his two predecessors, has determined that U.S. forces will
remain there. “The American people are weary of war without
victory,” he explained. So victory is what the president
promised them.

Specifically, he pledged to apply force strategically in order
“to create the conditions for a political process to achieve
a lasting peace.”

On five separate occasions, President Trump referred to a
“new strategy” for Afghanistan, but the details are
sketchy. Don’t be distracted by the assertions that Trump
expects more of our Afghan partners, or that he will put pressure
on Pakistan—and we really mean it this time. The
relevant point is this: presented with an opportunity to end the
U.S. war in Afghanistan, Trump chose to keep it going. And going.
“A core pillar of our new strategy,” he explained, is
“a shift from a time-based approach to one based on
conditions.” Withdrawal, should it ever come, won’t be
based on “arbitrary timetables.” Although he said
“our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a
blank check,” make no mistake: the U.S. military presence is

Why did a man who regularly railed against Washington insiders
for their foolish wars ultimately sign onto a continuation of
America’s longest one?

Trump’s skepticism of the war in Afghanistan goes back
at least six years. For example, on October 7, 2011, he asked on Twitter “when will we stop
wasting our money on rebuilding Afghanistan?” Less than six
months later, he tweeted “It is time to get out of
Afghanistan…It is not in our national interest.” In August
2012, he called the war in Afghanistan “a complete
waste.” And declared it’s “time to come
home.” As late as December 2014, he blasted President Barack Obama for
“keeping our soldiers in Afghanistan for at least another

Based on these comments, and Trump’s professed skepticism of the foreign policy
establishment’s playbook, it wouldn’t have been a great
shock if he chose to walk away.

On the other hand, Donald Trump hates losing. And leaving
Afghanistan in its present state would look a lot like a loss.

What’s more, if he were to withdraw all U.S. troops from
Afghanistan, and something bad were to happen at a later date (e.g.
terrorism here, attacks against Americans there, Taliban resurgent)
he would forever be blamed.

He could, and probably would, attempt to shift blame to his
predecessors. But the fact would stand: Trump chose to withdraw
U.S. troops after his predecessors had chosen to leave them in
place, and the bad thing happened on his watch. That that bad thing
would not have happened if the troops had stayed will be assumed,
although such claims are untested and untestable. Just ask Barack
Obama. On Monday evening, as he had many times previously, Donald
Trump blamed the rise of ISIS on Obama’s decision to withdraw
from Iraq in 2011.

President Trump’s rhetoric echoes the conventional wisdom
in Washington. Few presidents are criticized for using military
force. More often, they are hit for not intervening often enough.
Or trying hard enough. Or long enough. Withdrawal without victory
is a particularly odious sin.

Therefore, when Donald Trump was presented with an opportunity
to redirect U.S. attention and resources, he ignored both the
reasonable and well-considered suggestions to withdraw, as
well as the foolish and quixotic proposals. Instead, he
chose to kick the can down the road. Although he didn’t tell
the American people how many additional troops will be sent to
Afghanistan, increasing the size of the force already there will
not be sufficient to turn the tide there, a point that he admitted
during his speech. American military power is insufficient to bring
an enduring political settlement to a country the size of

But while leaving U.S. troops in Afghanistan hasn’t made
it easier to win (whatever that means), Trump has made it harder
for his successor to leave at a later date.

Imagine a scenario in the late summer of 2021, in which the next
occupant of the White House is confronted with a choice on whether
to stay or withdraw. He or she will agonize over it—as Trump
did, and as Obama did, too.

In all likelihood, that successor will also conclude
that leaving isn’t worth the political hit. President 46 will leave
the force in place, or modestly increase it, but without expecting
to ever actually win, or ever quit. The object, as with Trump, will
be to avoid the appearance of defeat.

Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s a recipe for continual conflict.

When any president is given the option of either backing away
from the use of American military power, or doubling down on past
efforts, the easiest course—politically—is to continue
the war.

President Trump has chosen the easiest course. The man who
prides himself on ignoring polls and focus groups, and making
decisions on the basis of what is best for the country, has behaved
no differently than his predecessors.

For those keeping score at home, that’s another point for
The Blob (aka Deep State).

is vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies
at the Cato Institute and the author of The Power Problem: How
American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous,
and Less Free