President Trump spoke Monday morning, August 21, for the first time in his administration formally addressing the question of the role of the United States in the war-torn nation of Afghanistan, “the path forward” as he put it.
At a couple of points in the address he repeated his objection, stated when he was a candidate, to “nation building” as a war goal for the United States. He believes that this country should not be trying to re-create other countries “in our own image.” He also said that his first instinct (which he had also shared with voters during the campaign) had been to pull U.S. forces out of the country. But he has come to distrust that instinct.
The President now believes that a U.S. withdrawal would encourage the use of Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorists, and he suggests it might also lead to the acquisition of nuclear materials by terrorist groups. The United States can’t allow such results so there will be no such withdrawal. The speech was vague but open-ended about the U.S. commitment.
Trump contemplated the possibility that “elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan” might someday be included in “a political settlement,” but he also indicated that “nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.”
Right Wing View
The early reaction to the policy announcement has been very critical, from both the right and the left of American politics, and from abroad. We begin, arbitrarily, with the right.
John Carney, writing at Breitbart, discusses his view that “Afghanistan could put Trump’s presidency at risk.” He contends that Trump’s anti-war views got him elected, winning him votes in states with high Afghanistan-war casualty numbers, states that also happen to have been critical to his electoral college victory. Hereafter, though, “voters in areas that suffer casualties may turn their anger against him” rather than seeing him as a valuable foil to “establishment politicians.”
A very common view on the right is that Trump has surrendered to the “swamp,” the permanent Washington interests he had hoped to drain. Conservative pundit Ann Coulter quickly expressed her verdict on the speech on twitter. “It doesn’t matter who you vote for,” she tweeted, “The military-industrial complex wins.”
Likewise, Dick Morris, for decades consultant to Republican and conservative candidates, told a reporter soon after the speech, “I think the deep state is taking over the Trump presidency. By that I mean the permanent government, the establishment in coalition with the media.”
Trump does have some defenders on the right, though. In the National Review (which has long been editorially unfriendly toward this President, doubting his conservative bona fides) David French congratulated him. He has now done, “exactly what we want presidents to do when they win elections, learn new information, and begin to fully understand the …, ramifications of promises foolishly made.”
Left Wing View
The speech allowed the President’s foes on the left to apply their standing premise that Trump is a wild-eyed demagogue. Sarah Jones, in The New Republic, wrote that the speech showed that Trump “has no strategy for Afghanistan,” he has only “bluster and venom.”
Similarly, MoveOn.org sees the speech as a domestic political feint, of what we used to call in the ‘90s, “wagging the dog,” rather than of any substantive foreign policy deliberations. “Trump is beating the war drums in an attempt to divert the American people’s attention from…” Charlottesville and the issues of race it has brought to the fore.
Meanwhile Matthew Iglesias, at Vox, suggested that Trump’s “longtime skepticism of America’s extended military adventure in Afghanistan … “has been one of the few redeeming facts about his eruption into national politics, and he regrets that it is gone. Now, Trump is simply embracing “a South Asia strategy pushed by Mike Pence.”
The View from Overseas
With this speech, it is very important for Americans to get a sense of the view from abroad. There were two other countries invoked in the address almost as pointedly as Afghanistan itself: Pakistan and India.
Trump was blunt in his criticism of the government of Pakistan. He said the U.S. has been subsidizing that government, but that it “has been housing the very terrorists that we are fighting.” That will change, he promised.
Apparently our ambassador to Pakistan spoke to the country’s prime minister before the speech by way of cushioning the blow, and assuring the prime minister that the two countries will continue to work together on common goals.
Trump also brought India into the mix. He said, “India makes billions of dollars in trade from the United States and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.” This sounds like a muffled threat that U.S. trade policy will become hostile, lessening those “billions” India receives from trade (not subsidies!), if India doesn’t toe the developing U .S. line on Afghanistan.
In a tweet, one well-informed observer of India’s diplomatic affairs wrote that if the United States wants a real partner in the region, such a “snarky” tone is not the way to go.