Speaking to a number of governors in February, Donald Trump unburdened himself, “We have to win. We have to start winning wars again. . . . We never win and we don’t fight to win. We’ve either got to win or don’t fight it at all.”
So far, so familiar.
Trump would be the third president to settle for less in Afghanistan. President Obama promised to finish the job that Bush didn’t finish because of the “distraction” of the Iraq War. Obama fulfilled his campaign promise of doing more in Afghanistan. His dramatic surge of troops resulted in real gains for the U.S. But he never instituted a full counterinsurgency strategy, and dared not risk a more comprehensive strategy of going after the Taliban’s redoubts in Pakistan. As U.S. troops withdrew according to a predetermined schedule, the Taliban took back more and more territory. By the end of his presidency, Obama was left just slowing down the pace of withdrawal in order to avoid the humiliation of Kabul’s fall before his exit.
As the Taliban regained territory, hundreds of thousands of Afghans were displaced from their homes. Opium production boomed. And corruption in the allied government in Kabul increased. A January report from the inspector general for Afghanistan stated that just over half of the country’s administrative districts were under the control of the U.S.-backed government. Military experts issued memos explaining that even putting 100,000 ground troops in Afghanistan might not achieve “the appearance of victory.”
Instead of scheduled withdrawal dates, the U.S. will manage the percentages, increasing troop levels in order to keep the Taliban pinned down in eastern Afghanistan, winning back a larger portion (but not all) of the country’s administrative districts, and generally keeping the Taliban and other Islamists locked down in a resource-poor part of the country that can be harassed by planes and drones. Doing this manages the risk on both ends. It reduces the risk of Afghanistan’s returning to its pre-9/11 state as a safe haven for terrorists, but it also reduces the risk that America will tire of the costs of the mission and that Congress will cut the purse strings.
Trump was on to something, however, when he pined for the simpler measures of victory over the current model of threat management — which is deeply unsatisfying, and a long fall from the belief of General Tommy Franks, expressed on December 22, 2001, that the United States had “liberated twenty-five million people and unified the country.”
After World War II and the Korean War, the United States maintained a large presence of troops in Germany and East Asia in order to keep the peace and deter potential enemies. But this is something different. Now we are maintaining troops in order to make sure the enemy is fighting us over there, so that every spring and summer see another round of skirmishes. Afghanistan is now a strange test for the United States: How long can a democratic people support a limited war that everyone acknowledges will not end in victory? Or at least, not in a victory as we’ve known it before?
If Trump embarks on National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster’s plan for Afghanistan, it will show that on certain questions the foreign-policy establishment is successfully pushing Trump to accept their premises and their conclusions. Maybe you find it reassuring. But there are a half-dozen conflicts in which the U.S. is a player, and in which there are few prospects of leaving behind a success story like Germany or South Korea. In Somalia, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, the United States has all but admitted it cannot leave behind a functional, self-sustaining ally and member of good standing in the international order. Will Trump hand all of them on to his successors in more or less the same condition as they are now?
We got into these conflicts with much heady talk about a democratic domino theory, or even an end to evil. We comforted ourselves that an Arab Spring would lead to peace and accountable government, and quickly reaped the whirlwind. If this is what the next American century looks like, it will be a depressing slog.
— Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer for National Review Online.