Eight months into his term, President Donald Trump is finally paying attention to the ongoing Afghanistan War, where thousands of U.S. soldiers are currently fighting. Trump’s new plan seems a lot like the old ones, with even less detail about how the war—or American involvement in it—will end.
For 16 years, America has been fighting terrorists in Afghanistan and trying to help stabilize the country. America’s longest war has claimed the lives of more than 2,400 U.S. troops and 1,136 allied troops, with tens of thousands wounded. In addition to the loss of life, combat in Afghanistan has cost the American taxpayer an estimated $841 billion (if the fiscal year 2018 budget request is met) in defense costs alone.
The Afghanistan War has shaped the lives of an entire generation of American service members and their families. The rest of America—and, until now, President Trump—have seemed to hardly realize that this war continues to drag on with young Americans in harm’s way.
While progress has come in fits and starts, Afghanistan remains in a difficult stalemate, with a weak central government and pervasive instability. The terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan remains very real, with ISIS fighters, Al Qaeda, and other terrorists still finding safe haven on both sides of the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border. And the Taliban continues to pose a mortal threat to the Afghan government.
American leaders should be realistic about what can be achieved in Afghanistan and clear about U.S. interests in the country. The United States and its allies and partners have an important role to play in preventing international terrorism from regaining a capacity to strike overseas from Afghan soil and in supporting the capacity of the Afghan military and government to keep pressure up on the Taliban and eventually find a political solution to their long-running conflict.
Unfortunately, Trump’s way forward focuses almost exclusively on increasing military pressure, committing more American lives without a clear strategy for achieving U.S. goals. Though he paid lip service to an integrated strategy in his remarks on August 21, Trump made clear that he views Afghanistan primarily as a military problem that requires a military solution. This approach will only ensure that the war continues.
Before going forward, the president must answer the following questions:
- What is the long-term U.S. goal, and how will more troops support a U.S. strategy to get there? Bizarrely, Trump refused to say how many more U.S. troops he will be sending to Afghanistan. Is the goal to hold the line against a rising Taliban, or does the Trump administration expect the new troops to change the arc of the conflict toward a negotiated solution? His commanders reportedly asked for 4,000 more troops in June. If he sticks to that number, Trump needs to explain why 4,000 troops can tip the balance when 100,000 could not only five years ago.
- Under what conditions will U.S. troops come home? President Barack Obama set a clear timeline when he ordered the Afghan surge in 2009. In his speech, Trump linked withdrawal to conditions on the ground but without explaining what conditions would merit troop reductions. This is a path toward a military commitment with no end in sight and significant potential for escalation. If the plan is to commit troops to a multiyear train-and-advise mission, the president must lay out the scope, cost, and duration as well as how that connects to a political and diplomatic mission.
- What is the whole-of-government strategy, and how do diplomacy and development fit in? Trump claimed that he will pursue an integrated strategy, but he outlined no details while making clear that the military effort would precede the other components, which is a recipe for disaster. Fundamentally, success in Afghanistan depends on an Afghan government that can effectively govern the country. If President Trump’s plan does not prioritize U.S. and international diplomatic and development efforts to support the civilian Afghan government, grow the Afghan economy, and support a political resolution to the war, no military strategy will succeed.
- Does President Trump plan to negotiate with the Taliban to bring an end to the war? The Afghan government is primarily fighting a battle against the Taliban, which, after 16 years, continues to fight and take control of territory. While the United States has been open to the possibility of talks with the Taliban since at least 2011, no significant negotiations have taken place. In his speech, Trump merely nodded to the possibility of talking to the Taliban. Of course, the Taliban were not driven to negotiations when more than 100,000 U.S. troops were involved in the conflict. If Trump wants his plan to succeed, he needs a different strategy for supporting an Afghan-led effort to get the Taliban to put down their arms.
- How will President Trump’s strategy change the dynamic with Pakistan? Pakistan has played both sides in this war, as Trump noted in his remarks, providing support to the United States and access to Afghanistan, even while it quietly supported the Taliban. Pakistan’s support for the Taliban is part of a decades-old policy. In his speech, Trump only stated the need to get tougher on Pakistan but provided no details. Trump needs to explain how his strategy will contend with the elements of Pakistan’s strategic calculus that run against U.S. interests.
- Is there a diplomatic strategy for the region? Pakistan is not the only problem. For decades, neighbors and great powers alike have competed in Afghanistan for influence. Trump needs to explain how he will use diplomacy to convince the major stakeholders—including India, Iran, Russia, and China—to set aside narrow interests in favor of stability.
- And has this strategy been coordinated with NATO allies? NATO allies have fought and died alongside U.S. troops for years in Afghanistan, and they will be essential going forward. And yet, Trump used his speech to repeat his criticism that NATO allies need to pay more, all while also saying he was confident that allies and partners would increase commitments in line with U.S. increases—increases that he never spelled out. How will the president get these allies to commit new resources after he has done so much to alienate them?
- Do the people and government of Afghanistan support Trump’s strategy? Trump said that, “Ultimately, it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future.” But has the government of Afghanistan agreed to this strategy? Trump needs to ensure that this strategy is fully coordinated with the Afghan government and communicated effectively to the people of Afghanistan.
After 16 years of war, and with no end in sight, President Trump missed an opportunity to level with the American people about U.S. goals in Afghanistan and the region. The American people deserve to know the answers to these fundamental questions. Using the excuse of keeping the enemy guessing, Trump withheld any actual details of his new plan to win in Afghanistan from the American people and from America’s allies and partners.
Before considering sending more troops into harm’s way and continuing America’s longest running war, President Trump owes it to the American people—most of all, the men and women in uniform putting their lives on the line—to both develop a comprehensive strategy and be honest about it. Until then, what he described as “principled realism” is just very costly wishful thinking.
Michael Fuchs is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and, most recently, was a deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. Hardin Lang is a senior fellow at the Center and formerly worked on peacekeeping and stabilization issues for the United Nations in Afghanistan. Vikram Singh is vice president for National Security and International Policy at the Center and, previously, was the deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Department of State.