Global Cop or America First: Trump's Afghanistan Plan Risks
(Bloomberg) -- A deteriorating situation in Afghanistan may soon force President Donald Trump to decide which of two campaign promises to keep: end the U.S. role as the world’s policeman or vigorously fight terrorism.
Either choice carries enormous risks.
Sixteen years after invading Afghanistan, the U.S. effort to bolster the government in Kabul is failing and most of the 8,400 American troops are limited to training Afghan fighters who keep losing territory to the Taliban. One option Trump is weighing would add 5,000 troops. But that could increase military casualties without long-term gains in a country that has stymied foreign militaries dating back at least to the British occupation of the 1800s.
“We’ll have a small fraction of the total troop strength we had at their apex a few years ago, close to 100,000 U.S. troops and 140,000 total international forces," said Dan Feldman, a former State Department special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. "If that didn’t achieve stability in Afghanistan, how will this modest increase help break the stalemate?"
With Trump yet to make his decision, Afghanistan wasn’t a central topic when he met NATO leaders in Brussels on Thursday, as it has been in recent years. But a U.K. official who asked not to be identified said the country will contribute more non-combat troops to the Afghanistan effort. Overall numbers will be discussed at another NATO meeting in June, the official said.
But any buildup likely to win approval may not be enough.
The U.S. intelligence community believes “the political and security situation in Afghanistan will almost certainly deteriorate through 2018 even with a modest increase in military assistance by the United States and its partners,” Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told lawmakers in Washington on May 23. “Meanwhile, we assess that the Taliban is likely to continue to make gains, especially in rural areas.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, traveling with the president on May 24, told reporters on Air Force One that the Trump administration’s “Afghan policy review is still a work in progress” and “it’s probably a couple of weeks away, at least, before we’re going to be ready to present something to the president.”
While Trump considers his options and tries to build allied support, the White House has defended the plan’s consideration as part of Trump’s vow to wipe out Islamic State, which has made gains in the south Asian country, though it still lags far behind the Taliban in territory controlled.
The president may find it easier to win European support in the wake of the May 22 bombing in Manchester, U.K., which killed at least 22 people and has been claimed by Islamic State.
On the eve of Trump’s meeting Thursday at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s headquarters, France and Germany threw their support behind a U.S.-led effort to get the alliance more engaged in fighting global terrorism. But that may not yield a significantly expanded coalition force in Afghanistan.
“What is clear is we will continue our military presence, training mission in Afghanistan, then we are looking if there is a need for some increase in the troop levels,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview with Bloomberg last week.
‘Rebuild the U.S.!’
The pre-presidential Trump would have pushed back against a U.S. escalation.
“I agree with Pres. Obama on Afghanistan,” Trump tweeted in January 2013, when his predecessor was seeking to scale back the U.S. presence. “We should have a speedy withdrawal. Why should we keep wasting our money -- rebuild the U.S.!”
Yet from the Middle East to the Korean peninsula, the president who campaigned on an “America First” pledge and said that “we cannot be the policeman of the world, we cannot protect countries all over the world,” is deepening U.S. involvement in global hot spots. He authorized a missile strike on Syria, dispatched an aircraft carrier to South Korea, approved a plan arming Syrian Kurds over Turkish protests and boosted special forces in Somalia.
“There’s an inherent contradiction between these two positions,” said Stephen Tankel, a former senior adviser to the Defense Department under President Barack Obama.
Sending thousands of troops into Afghanistan would be Trump’s riskiest move yet.
No one disagrees that Afghanistan is struggling -- a U.S. watchdog said last month that a record number of civilians died last year, 16 years after President George W. Bush first sent special forces to the country after the Sept. 11 attacks. That move came after the ruling Taliban government refused to hand over al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
But four months into his presidency, Trump is also running out of time to blame Obama or “the generals” for military casualties that take place on his watch, as he appeared to do in the aftermath of a January special forces raid in Yemen that led to one U.S. death.
“This was something that was, you know, just — they wanted to do,” Trump said in a February interview with Fox News. “And they came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected. And they lost Ryan,” Trump said, referring to the death of Senior Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens.
Some of Trump’s advisers believe an expanded U.S. force could staunch Islamic State’s expanding presence in Afghanistan and reverse Taliban gains, giving the fragile government more leverage to prod the Taliban toward negotiations, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations. While no final decision has been made, news of the proposed troop increase already is generating a range of responses on Capitol Hill.
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who ran against Trump in the Republican primaries last year, urged the president to stick with his “America First” roots. He called an increase in forces “a fool’s errand” and “a terrible idea.”
"The purpose of the Afghanistan war was to get those who organized and attacked us on 9/11. That mission is long done," Paul of Kentucky said in an interview. “Creating a nation out of Afghanistan is an impossible goal and will just needlessly cause loss of American life and there’s no possibility of us ever creating a country out of Afghanistan.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, applauded the idea of sending more U.S. troops but said he isn’t sure 5,000 are enough.
"We need forces over there to protect the American homeland," he said. "Deterioration of security in Afghanistan has allowed terrorist groups to go back to Afghanistan to find safe haven, and international terrorist organizations are operating in Afghanistan. The threat to the homeland is real, and we need more American forces in Afghanistan as an insurance policy against another 9/11."
Kenneth Katzman, a senior analyst of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Persian Gulf Affairs at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, said the troop increase Trump is considering represents "an effort to stave off disaster and humiliation."
For a president who said his supporters would get “tired of winning,” that could be too much to stomach.
"I don’t think the numbers that are being discussed are sufficient to really push the insurgency back dramatically," Katzman said. Referring to the rushed U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam a generation ago, he said the proposal “is designed to stave off the Saigon scenario, the humiliating defeat where the government falls or is overrun and the U.S. has to abandon the mission.”