When I graduated from West Point in 2009, the war in Afghanistan was one of the hottest topics. President Barack Obama’s campaign and young presidency had been defined, in large part, by the debate about what should be done in Afghanistan. Should the US adopt a limited counterterrorism and training mission or a more comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign demanding tens of thousands more troops on the ground? After thoroughly considering the options, Obama chose a version of the latter. As a newly minted Army officer, I recognized the careful consideration he gave to the issue, and it inspired confidence. I could hardly wait to set foot on Afghan soil and contribute to the effort.
I was ultimately deployed to Afghanistan twice, spending a total of 16 months in various intelligence positions. And now, the war rages through its sixteenth year. I’ve lost friends to the conflict, and other friends have lost limbs. The US has made an immense financial investment—in 2014, it was reported the US had spent more on reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan than it spent on the Marshall Plan, which brought Europe back from the brink after WWII. Yet the American commander in Afghanistan recently described the war as at a “stalemate.” Indeed, America’s path forward in Afghanistan is as unclear as ever.
Afghanistan was a practically non-existent topic during the campaign and the presidential debates. As a candidate, Donald Trump provided only sporadic suggestions that he would “begrudgingly” maintain a troop presence in Afghanistan. Now in office, the Trump administration has offered little clarity. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer indicated that the administration is reviewing Afghanistan policy, and military leadership seemingly supports a troop increase, though Defense Secretary James Mattis has not decided what his recommendation will be. But amidst all of the Trump administration’s controversies, this issue has suffered from a severe lack of executive attention. On a matter of war, America deserves more from the White House than infrequent, subdued references.
Trump, for his part, shows little interest in the war in Afghanistan. Since assuming office, he has seldom even uttered the country’s name in public, much less offered any substantive statements about the conflict. Despite inheriting more deployed troops in Afghanistan than any other combat zone, the president, who has crowned himself champion of veteran and military causes, seems unmoored from the reality that the US is still engaged in this war. His silence is beginning to draw attention on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress are eager to learn what the president’s plans are. Even the Afghan government is doing what it can, including highlighting its mineral wealth, to get Trump’s attention.
If Trump really wants to honor veterans and the military, he should exercise his responsibilities as president and commander in chief. That is, he should encourage an honest and public debate about Afghanistan and then deliver an informed policy decision, as his predecessor did. Trump owes at least this much to the war’s veterans—fallen, wounded, and forever changed alike—and especially to those who serve there now or will in the future.
Trump also owes it to himself to keep diplomatic instruments on the table as he deliberates. His budget proposal suggests that he cares only for military might and disregards the value of diplomacy and foreign aid. Yet approaching Afghanistan with this attitude forces a binary choice—an exclusively military solution or nothing at all. What savvy business leader would remove potentially useful tools before even meaningfully contemplating a strategy? After all, a collection of retired generals and admirals has vouched for the value of soft-power mechanisms, explaining, “many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone.” And General Joseph Votel, the Commander of U.S. Central Command, said in a recent Senate hearing that the U.S. cannot “achieve lasting positive effects” in his region of responsibility—which includes Afghanistan—“solely through military means.”
I write not to prescribe a solution. Many sides of the debate have merit and involve important interests, but thorough discourse, which remains open to all options, is the best way to reach a thoughtful policy. And admittedly, the war can be difficult for the country to discuss, especially for veterans who struggle to reconcile their good-faith efforts with the hard truth that the war has so far been unsuccessful. But it’s the president’s job—as a leader—to elevate the discussion, marshal resources, navigate difficult discussions, and provide an answer to veterans, service members, and the nation. Whatever the eventual decision, President Trump needs to give Afghanistan the attention it deserves. And his usual excuse for not articulating a policy—a suggestion that he has a secret plan—won’t suffice.
Image: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class LaSonya J. Johnson