President Trump is changing gears on Afghanistan as he enters his second year in office.
After decrying nation building during his presidential campaign and lambasting Afghanistan as a “complete waste,” the president is in the midst of sending thousands more troops to the country in an effort to stabilize it.
The move, military commanders say, will help break a stalemate in the longest U.S. war in history and help beat back a resurgent Taliban and straggling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters.
But defense experts say there is little indication the shift will be a quick fix.
The U.S. must contend with an increased ISIS presence while keeping Afghanistan politically stable and pressuring Pakistan to limit the space for the Taliban and other terrorist groups, according to James Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“We’re seeing foreign fighters flow there. We’ve also seen some regional tensions and challenges for the government,” Carafano, a member of the Trump transition team, told The Hill.
The administration is pressuring Pakistan to shore up its borders, but Carafano said it may take years to win gains from the relationship.
Afghanistan’s pressing difficulties becomes all the more apparent after a terror attack this week in Kabul. The suicide bombing at a Shiite cultural center killed 41 people and injured dozens of others, with ISIS claiming credit.
“The United States strongly condemns today’s barbaric attack at a cultural and social center in Kabul, Afghanistan, and offers its deepest condolences to the victims and their families,” the White House said in a statement.
“The United States stands firmly with the government and people of Afghanistan and will work closely with the National Unity Government to bring the perpetrators of this heinous attack to justice.”
Prior to the presidential campaign, Trump more than a dozen times wrote on Twitter that the U.S. military should leave the country given the lives and dollars lost in Afghanistan.
“Let’s get out of Afghanistan,” he wrote in January 2013. “Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.”
Once a Republican candidate, however, Trump said the United States would likely have to stay in Afghanistan, but promised to end “nation-building” missions.
“We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place,” Trump told CNN in October 2015.
“We had real brilliant thinkers that didn’t know what the hell they were doing. And it’s a mess. . . . And at this point, you probably have to (stay) because that thing will collapse about two seconds after they leave.”
Shortly after taking office, Trump spoke little about Afghanistan beyond boasting he had taken the shackles off his commanders in making decisions, a move which allowed them to drop its largest non-nuclear bomb on ISIS targets in Afghanistan in April.
“We have the greatest military in the world, and they’ve done a job as usual so we have given them total authorization,” he told reporters at the time. “And that’s what they’re doing. And, frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.”
In August, he revealed his newest stance in announcing a strategy that includes an indefinite time commitment and thousands more troops in the country.
Trump has acknowledged that being in office changed his views.
“My original instinct was to pull out and, historically, I like following my instincts. But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office,” Trump said as he revealed the strategy.
Carafno defended the sharp change in Trump’s campaign and presidential rhetoric.
“He said on the campaign trail what he thought with the information that he had and what he knew. And then as president when he talked to people and they said ‘this is the right thing to do,’ he was able to make the right decisions,” he said.
Carafano also argued the changed stance points to an emerging pattern in Trump’s decisions.
“He’s willing to take on things which could take years and which in the end won’t necessarily end the issue but it will protect America’s interests,” Carafano said. “It shows that he is willing to commit to long-term policies.”
The Pentagon started sending about 3,000 additional troops to the country this summer – upping the number of U.S. forces to 14,000. The U.S. military will soon send thousands more advisers to aid their Afghan counterparts closer to the front lines, according to Gen. John Nicholson, the head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
There are “well over 1,000 advisers out at any given time,” Nicholson told reporters. “Next year, however, this will increase dramatically.”
Trump also eased restrictions on U.S. military commanders. Leaders operating in Afghanistan are now allowed greater use of offensive American air power against the Taliban and have tripled the number of munitions dropped on insurgents.
For now, the war in the country is “still in a stalemate,” and some experts believe the fight will only grow more messy in 2018.
“He’s putting a Donald Trump spin on the previous administration’s Afghanistan strategy, slightly fewer troops but more bombing,” said Stephen Miles, director of Win Without War, which advocates for a diplomacy-heavy foreign policy.
Miles called it “completely impossible” to think 15,000 troops will tip a war in favor of the United States when previous presidents were unable to do so with a force of 100,000.
To turn the page on Afghanistan’s issues, which include rampant government corruption and an oppressive political system, would require a kind of diplomatic effort that seems non-existent in the Trump administration, he told The Hill.
“The question of Afghanistan in 2018 is are we going to learn of the failures of the past? We’re seeing a complete failure for having any sort of regional framework. We keep making the same mistakes and nothing really changes, unfortunately,” Miles said.
But Trump seems willing to continue to push on in Afghanistan, as evidenced by his August speech.
“No one denies that we have inherited a challenging and troubling situation in Afghanistan and South Asia, but we do not have the luxury of going back in time and making different or better decisions.”
By Ellen Mitchell
Source: The Hill