In the midst of the challenging 2017 Afghanistan policy review, Vice President Mike Pence called Senator Lindsey Graham, the one-time Trump antagonist who had repositioned himself as one of the President’s most trusted national security advisers. Graham was making progress in persuading Trump to avoid an abrupt withdrawal, and Pence had some counsel for the Senator, “You’ve got to tell him how this ends.” Wittingly or not, the Vice President had quoted General David Petraeus, who made the same remark some 14 years earlier, when the general’s 101st Airborne Division encountered the first signs of what would become Iraq’s bloody insurgency. Graham replied that the struggle against terrorists would never end, according to Bob Woodward, who details the interaction in his new book Fear. The rest of Woodward’s excellent encapsulation of the Afghanistan policy review reads like the Pence-Graham interaction: a repeat of the same discussions, cliches, frustrations, and failed policy solutions that have marked virtually every Afghanistan or Iraq policy review for at least the past decade. And ultimately an uncomfortable truth about the longevity of our struggle against terrorists.
Yet amid this maddening account of the umpteenth Afghanistan policy review, something surprising happens: President Trump asks a series of entirely rational questions about why we are still there and what we have gotten in exchange for our fallen troops and exhaustion of massive resources. It is President Trump’s willingness to take on the tired tropes that makes for perhaps the most generous vignette of the man that we have seen to date.
The contours of Trump’s Afghanistan policy review could have been lifted from virtually any of the five previous books Woodward has written about U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like characters out of Kabuki theater, representatives from the State Department, Pentagon, and intelligence community come together to debate America’s core objectives, desired end states, the prospects for political reconciliation, and the pluses and minuses of different levels of U.S. presence. These discussions morph into a four-pronged strategy, which then-National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster cleverly brands as the 4 Rs: Reinforce the Afghan security forces with training, advice, and assistance while creating conditions to incentivize reform; Realign U.S. assistance to areas under Afghan government control; Reconcile by promoting political accommodation with a range of Afghan power centers; and Regionalize by bringing in other nations with a vested interest in Afghanistan’s success.
At one point, Woodward observes that the Administration was “trying to make policy on a string of one-sentence cliches.” It’s a stinging remark coming from Woodward, as one shudders to think of all the cliches, metaphors, and euphemisms he and the rest of us have come across over the many years of dealing with these wars. Clear/hold/build, oil spots, population-centric warfare, pacification, integrated civil-military operations, phase IV operations, and of course, winning hearts and minds. More bumper sticker strategies and bullet-point truisms thrown onto PowerPoint slides, all of which are mostly effective in clouding our strategic thinking.
Participants in the Trump Administration’s policy process earnestly insist that this time things will be different. In some cases, they call for explicit rejection of President Obama’s approach: The military’s targeting rules are loosened. There will be no artificial deadlines or talk of troop numbers. In other cases, the officials call for supposed changes that are in fact right out of the Obama playbook: Washington will pursue a serious regional diplomatic approach (see Richard Holbrooke). The U.S. presence will focus on the core missions of supporting Afghan forces, counterterrorism, and maintaining our ability to collect intelligence on terrorist threats in the region (basically the same slimmed down mission set Obama handed Trump in 2017).
Woodward captures only a fraction of what must have been a truly violent explosion when the Beltway policy machine, with its metaphors, hackneyed policy questions, and clever strategic monikers, ran headlong into President Trump. Fueled by a recent lunch meeting he had with four enlisted combat veterans who detailed frustrations they had seen on the ground, from a hopelessly corrupt Afghan government to a feckless NATO, the President berates his cabinet and generals: “But how many more deaths? How many more lost limbs? How much longer are we going to be there?” It is here, perhaps more than ever, that Trump is truly speaking for all Americans, asking nagging questions that have never been answered satisfactorily.
Yet satisfying as it may be to watch President Trump dismantle stale foreign policy thinking, policymaking is not about gut reactions or moralizing. It is about doing the best you can with whatever shitty situation you inherit. Trump seems to get this. Either on the basis of his own reasoning or out of fear of the consequences, Trump realizes that he can’t leave Afghanistan to fend for itself. The best option for U.S. national security is to build a platform in Afghanistan capable of supporting our Afghan partners and keeping us safe from terrorists. And so he begrudgingly approves the Pentagon’s most basic option, around 4,000 additional troops in Afghanistan, and endorses McMaster’s slimmed down strategy.
In this recounting, we see a level of maturity and real world leadership from the President that we have rarely seen before. With this policy approval, Trump endorsed what has essentially become the new American counterterrorism strategy over the past 3-4 years: keep partner nations from collapsing, provide forceful support to friendly forces bearing the brunt of the fight, and conduct drone strikes against the major threats to the United States. It’s a decidedly less ambitious strategy than the United States has pursued previously in the struggle against terrorism. But bold U.S. ambitions have been repeatedly unrealized in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, and Libya. The Arab Spring largely petered out or left more instability in its wake. And the succession of three American administrations may have now come to recognize that a more measured, realistic approach to counterterrorism may be the best we can do. The new strategy doesn’t presume or necessarily expect a partner nation at peace with itself and its neighbors. It doesn’t strive for regional prosperity or an outbreak of Arab Spring democracy across the Middle East. It doesn’t highly prioritize empowerment of women and girls–at least not in the immediate term and not as part of a national security lens. Sometimes it means fighting the enemy to a stalemate or taking whatever action can be taken against terrorist groups amid a civil war. At other times, it means decimating international terrorist groups while leaving other nefarious actors in place. Success looks like a constellation of fragile states with varying levels of democracy — some so low that democracy is the wrong word — that work with the United States on shared counterterrorism missions and hopefully grow stronger over a generation or more. That doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker, thankfully.
In the end, then, President Trump’s failing on Afghanistan is not on account of the policy he adopted. He made the right decision. 12,000 troops focused on a very limited set of missions is probably about right for handling the terrorist threat we face in Afghanistan and Pakistan. No, his failure is his obsession with clear, unequivocal victory and his inability to communicate otherwise. Despite efforts from his advisors — across the spectrum from realists like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and otherwise villainous politicos like Steve Bannon — to get him to avoid such triumphal language in favor of more sober language, Trump can’t help himself. “You can’t have him sitting there talking about victory. There’s not going to be a victory,” said Bannon following the President’s nationally televised Afghanistan speech, Woodward reports. Yet the President consistently insists on speaking of winning and victory, concepts his top commander in Afghanistan also likes, much to Mattis’s chagrin.
A true leader would begin the hard work of engaging the public and the whole of government to adapt to the new reality. For this is not just about messaging. This is about building sustainable democratic support for the long-term mission, and providing Americans with information to decide what sacrifices are worth it. This is also about working with the military and other departments and agencies around a common understanding of the larger strategy and what counts as achievement.
The neocon ideal has been exposed as fraudulent. The liberal ideal of counterterrorism through development and political self-determination has been largely rendered naive. The latest visions of success are highly unsatisfying and provide a murky set of objectives to which we devote our troops and national resources. And it’s perhaps for that reason that President Trump and his predecessors have failed to offer a nuanced picture of what we can and should expect to achieve. But 17 years to the day after 9/11, when thousands of young men and women are still fighting on our behalf, it’s the honest message the American people deserve.