In his address last Monday, President Donald Trump drew attention to something that has been too long denied or ignored by policymakers: America’s “forgotten war” in Afghanistan remains one to be fought and to be won.
Trump’s speech demonstrated that he, along with his formidable national security team, understand what is at stake in Afghanistan and that the United States and our partners must confront realities on the ground as they are, not as we wish them to be.
The president touched four bases in this speech, and in doing so, hit a home run.
First, he acknowledged the sacrifice of thousands of service men and women in the conflict, along with many Americans’ frustrations that the war has continued for so long, seemingly without a strategic vision or an articulated end goal.
Second, he made the effective case that the “consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable,” and that the United States must continue to support the vital security mission in Afghanistan. Importantly, he stressed that strategic decisions will be made based on conditions on the ground, not via politically motivated judgments determined by election cycles.
Third, he reframed the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan as a regional one, highlighting how we must revamp our approach to South Asia as a whole. This will include pressuring Pakistan on its, at best, lukewarm approach to combatting terrorism, and reaffirming and strengthening alliances with key partners like India.
Fourth, and finally, he articulated a vision for victory, not just how to avoid outright defeat. He stressed the relaxation of restrictive rules of engagement and connected a secure Afghanistan with America’s own national security.
The critical rejoinders to the strategic approach Trump outlined, while numerous, were predictable and shortsighted.
Full withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces, which some have advocated, would leave Afghanistan to be overrun by terrorist groups. It would also enable geopolitical adversaries like Iran, Russia, and China to gain a stronger foothold in a key region of the world.
Unfortunately, this is a lesson the United States has had to learn far too often – when we create power vacuums in unstable corners of the globe, the result is almost always more insecurity, more bloodshed, and more innocent lives lost.
President Obama’s disastrous, politically motivated withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 is but the most recent example.
Others have argued that the only way to solve the security problem in Afghanistan is to deploy tens of thousands of additional troops to eradicate terrorism from Kabul to the border regions. This approach is also unfeasible for various cost and operational reasons, and misguided from a strategic standpoint.
In fact, both sides of the spectrum seem to miss the point that 2017 Afghanistan is not 2001 Afghanistan.
The mission in Afghanistan today is simple: train and assist Afghan security forces so they can assure their own national security, and maintain a sufficient U.S. presence to conduct counterterrorism operations.
American and NATO forces are no longer leading primary combat operations, nor should they. Such operational responsibility belongs to the Afghan people.
However, to abort the “advise and assist” mission prematurely would be to undermine what so many Americans have given their lives to achieve – a stable, secure Afghanistan, in which terrorist groups cannot operate freely and plan attacks on the United States and its allies.
Pulling out of Afghanistan would also severely limit our ability to conduct rapid-response and counterterrorism operations quickly and powerfully, thus giving our enemies an upper hand against us and our partners.
These two missions are not, contrary to some assertions, nation building. In fact, they are the polar opposite. By empowering the Afghans to deliver their own security, and maintaining a residual force to conduct security operations, we are returning responsibility to the Afghan people, while sending a message to the rest of the world that the military might of the U.S. will remain engaged to support our interests at the strategic crossroads of the world.
The international community has done a lot of self-righteous hand-wringing in recent months about the United States supposedly “taking a step back from leading on the world stage.”
On Afghanistan, the Trump administration is signaling the exact opposite. Not only does it intend to achieve victory in Afghanistan – it will deploy the full range of foreign policy tools to do so.
Time will tell if this administration can accomplish what its predecessors have not, but the president’s speech Monday was a much-needed dose of reality, and a sign there is reason to be hopeful that America’s “forgotten war” does not remain so.
This piece originally appeared in Real Clear Defense