President Trump revealed his long-awaited strategy for the U.S. war in Afghanistan Monday night, following months of deliberations with top advisers. From Fort Myer in Virginia, the president committed the country to continuing the long war there in his first prime-time address, while attempting to distance himself from the efforts of past administrations.
Here’s what was missing from the president’s Afghanistan address:
1. Identifying the enemy
While the president did speak to “the enemy” and “enemies” in Afghanistan, he never defined who they are and what they believed. He mentioned that the new strategy entails “obliterating ISIS” and “crushing al-Qaida.” But, at the same time, he offered to negotiate with the Taliban, which shares said groups’ ideology.
Notably absent from Trump’s speech was any mention of “Islam,” “radical Islam,” or “Islamic terrorism.” What is it that connects the various jihadist organizations that seek the downfall of America and the West? What is the ideology that we are trying to defeat?
2. Defining victory and an exit strategy
What does victory in Afghanistan look like, and when is it OK for American troops to finally leave?
The president said in his address: “From now on, victory will have a clear definition: Attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaida, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terrorist attacks against America before they emerge.”
But the aforementioned words don’t define victory at all; they lay out objectives. Right now, the Taliban controls or contests over 40 percent of Afghanistan. If victory entails that America no longer has any enemies in Afghanistan, U.S. troops can expect to be there in perpetuity.
The president said that “conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on,” and warned of a possible power vacuum caused by a quick withdrawal. Yet American troops have been in Afghanistan for 16 years — it has become the longest war in American history.
At what point is it acceptable to leave the Afghan theater and refocus efforts on confronting other major adversaries? Unlike North Korea and Iran, adversaries in Afghanistan do not have access to advanced weaponry, crippling cyber technology, and other tools that can do real, lasting damage to the United States.
3. Addressing the failed democracy project
Prior to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Kabul was ruled for centuries as a soft authoritarian monarchy. While the system is far from ideal to the average Westerner, it kept order in Afghanistan and gave the country stability.
The Bush-initiated effort to impose the ultra-foreign concept of Western liberal democracy on the tribal land has been a disaster. Under both Presidents Bush and Obama, the U.S. sought to prop up a central government in Kabul that largely failed to garner respect, influence, and control outside of urban areas.