On the matter of an outcome in Afghanistan after 16 years of fitful war, President Trump is adamant. “The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory,” he proclaimed in Monday night’s big speech. “They deserve the tools they need, and the trust they have earned, to fight and to win.”
The president hammered home the point, again and again:
Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.
Stirring stuff. Or at least it would have been if Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had not, less than 24 hours later, undercut his boss’s bold message. Victory? There is no battlefield victory to be had in Afghanistan, Tillerson maintained at Foggy Bottom. Instead, the modest goal is to convince the Taliban that, while “we might not win,” they won’t win either.
Eh . . . not so stirring.
By the time the secretary was done tinkering with the president’s “plan for victory,” one couldn’t be sure if the Taliban was an enemy, a terrorist organization, or a “peace partner.” Indeed, not content to leave pathetic enough alone, Tillerson contemplated “political legitimacy” for the mullahs, proclaiming that the Trump administration “stand[s] ready to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban without precondition.” You read that right: without precondition — not even the condition that they abandon their alliance with al-Qaeda (you know, the reason we went to Afghanistan in the first place). As the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes observed, this is “the same kind of diplomatic tail-chasing that was a priority of the Obama administration’s failed approach.”
The band’s got new players. The pitch is a bit higher. But the song remains the same.
Ultimately, Tillerson elaborated, “it is going to be up to the Afghan government and the representatives of the Taliban to work through a reconciliation process.” Sound familiar? Yeah . . . just like Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, during an April 2016 trip to Kabul, expressing “support for the government of Afghanistan’s efforts to end the conflict in Afghanistan through a peace and reconciliation process with the Taliban.”
The Taliban has now been recognized by the Obama and Trump administrations as the solution to the Afghanistan problem. That is, Trump has adopted The Way of the Swamp: Any problem that won’t go away eventually becomes “the solution.” The strategy — and who says hope isn’t a strategy? — is that the mullahs will finally come to their senses, end their remorseless jihad, and join the ineffective regime we have struggled to prop up for over a decade.
There are two major problems with this approach.
First, the Taliban believe they will win without negotiating because they are confident they will outlast us. They responded to Trump’s speech (and Tillerson’s revise-and-extend exercise) by promising to “sustain our jihad” as long as it takes. Obama could not get them to the table despite having over 100,000 American troops in theater. Trump currently has 8,400, a paltry number he is reluctantly willing to increase by about 4,000 (the administration is being coy about the exact number). Even if he were to double that (not likely), what would be accomplished?
Obama could not get the Taliban to the table despite having over 100,000 American troops in theater. Trump currently has 8,400, a paltry number he is reluctantly willing to increase by about 4,000.
The president rebuked his predecessor over the futility of waging war by advance announcements to the enemy of his withdrawal timelines. Trump has a point. There was no sense in Obama’s approach: pegging wartime troop levels to political rather than military considerations, imposing force-reduction timelines with no regard for battlefield conditions and requirements. All that said, though, from 2009 through mid 2014, Obama kept in Afghanistan a force between three and eight times the size that Trump will have after his mini-surge. Yet, unfazed and unmoved by Obama-Kerry pleas for “reconciliation,” the Taliban continued to fight. As they and their jihadist allies gained ground, Obama responded by withdrawing troops. The Taliban knew they were winning.
Now, beneath Trump’s “we will fight to win” applause lines, the Taliban see that he is resistant to anything but a marginal escalation in what is a skeleton force, on hand more in an advisory than a combat role. They read the papers. They know the president didn’t even want to do that much. They realize that Trump has stated, time and again over the years, that he does not believe any American troops should still be in Afghanistan.
To summarize, the Taliban know they are on their home turf against a commander-in-chief who doesn’t want to be there and who was contemplating total withdrawal as a serious option just a month ago. Why should they budge?
I said that there are two major problems with Trump’s strategy. Alas, the one I’ve just described is the easier one. The second, tougher problem is that the Taliban are still the Taliban.
They are the vanguard of fundamentalist Islam, the Sunni version of sharia supremacism. So virulently anti-American is their totalitarian ideology that the Taliban are making common cause with their Shiite counterparts in Iran to persevere in their jihad against American forces.
It can get tiresome recounting this history, but it is worth remembering that our forces invaded Afghanistan all those years ago because the Taliban, while ruling that country beginning in the mid-1990s, gave safe haven to al-Qaeda to plot, train for, and orchestrate several attacks against the United States. The 9/11 atrocities were not a one-off; they were the last in a series. Even so, President George W. Bush offered to give the mullahs a pass on the condition that they turn al-Qaeda’s leadership over to the United States. Only when the Taliban refused, knowing it meant they would be driven from power, did our forces invade.
The Taliban is the creation of fundamentalist Islamic elements of Pakistani intelligence, conceived as a geopolitical weapon against India. The Pashto word “taliban” means students – and, as you’ve no doubt guessed, we are not talking about students of comparative lit or macroeconomics. They are students of sharia, Islam’s ancient societal framework and legal code. They refer to themselves as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They rose to power and have been sustained through 16 years of war because, contrary to what Western progressives would have you believe, they have significant support in what is a modernity-resistant sharia society. That is why they gave al-Qaeda sanctuary. It is why, to this day, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder with al-Qaeda in the jihad.
So what’s our plan? Why, we’re going to “reconcile” them so they can have a share of power. Fabulous.
Of course, if the Taliban were interested in the foot in the regime door that we are offering, it would only be for the purpose of retaking full power once we leave. If that seems perfectly obvious to you, you are clearly not wired for diplomatic work. The State Department — regardless of which party is in the White House — proceeds on the assumption that the Taliban will make peace with the rickety regime in Kabul. They will join in the governance of the emirate — um, I mean, the country. This time they’ll behave themselves, eventually deep-six their al-Qaeda alliance, and go easy on the subjugation of women, the killing of homosexuals, the death sentences for apostates, the effacement of non-Islamic cultural vestiges, the jihad against the West, and the rest of the classical sharia vision these students have been studying for decades.
Crazy? No crazier than State’s convincing itself that Iran is complying with Obama’s legacy deal and has no interest in acquiring nukes. As the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Tom Joscelyn explains, “officials in the State Department and elsewhere in government are heavily invested in the idea that the Taliban is a legitimate, albeit noxious, political faction that must be reconciled with the Afghan government,” even though “this policy goal has been betrayed by reality at every turn.”
With Trump’s State Department sounding exactly like Obama’s State Department, is it any surprise that The Donald is starting to sound like Imam Barack? Did you notice what was missing from Monday night’s speech? Though Trump was addressing a war with jihadists in which we’ve been mired for 16 years, there was not a single utterance about “radical Islamic terrorism.” That, you may recall from the 2016 presidential campaign, is the enemy Trump has repeatedly said we cannot be afraid to name. On Monday, to the contrary, the president assured us that “terrorists who slaughter innocent people will find no glory in this life or the next.”
Does he reckon that’s what they believe throughout Afghanistan?
To be fair, there are no good answers about what to do in that awful country. But it is hard to imagine a worse answer than trying to reconcile the Taliban to the regime.
The problem in Afghanistan is not the Taliban. The problem in Afghanistan is Afghanistan.
There is a vital American interest in preventing ungoverned territories from becoming sanctuaries where jihadists plot against us. In most places, we deal with this challenge without having thousands of U.S. troops on the ground. If you were waiting to hear the president explain why, after all our sacrifice, Afghanistan should not be one of those places, you waited in vain.
The problem in Afghanistan is not the Taliban. The problem in Afghanistan is Afghanistan. The Taliban (and al-Qaeda, and the Haqqanis, and the “ISIS-K” in Khoransan province) are an inevitable consequence of sharia society, not its cause. We cannot change that. Contrary to Washington wisdom, there are no “vacuums” in the Middle East. There is Islamic fundamentalism. Absent the intervention of military force or tyrannical regimes, Islamic fundamentalism produces sharia societies that guarantee savage infighting and repression. As long as such societies endure, there will always be another Taliban to partner with another al-Qaeda; and there will always be Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey and the rest to support and exploit them — all the while posing as opponents of “extremism.”
We should be taking every sensible step to protect our society from the threats — kinetic and cultural, ideological and legal — posed by these aggressor societies. On that score, what we do on visa policy and border security is much more important than what we do in Afghanistan. Congress, moreover, should be enacting a new authorization of military force that solidifies the president’s authority to strike jihadist sanctuaries in Afghanistan and wherever else the enemy plots against us.
But let’s face facts: We are now 16 years down the road, and our government still refuses to be clear-eyed about sharia-supremacist ideology. We’ve lost thousands of valiant lives and wasted trillions of dollars trying to better the lot of people who hate us. Our nation, moreover, has no appetite for the formidable war effort it would take to pursue actual victory against our enemies and their sponsors. We should not inch up our forces in Afghanistan. We should strip down to the minimum assets needed to carry out and support counterterrorism strikes. And we should have as little to do with this region as our vital interests allow.