U.S. presidents owe it to citizens to speak to them directly from time to time about the wars they wage in the country’s name and on the public’s dollar. That duty carries extra weight with regard to Afghanistan, the longest war in American history, now about to conclude its 16th year.
Barack Obama did it in his first year as commander in chief when he announced a surge of troops into Afghanistan, which led to the bloodiest stage of the war. Donald Trump also did it in his first year when on Monday he recommitted the U.S. to finish the job.
For the most part, Trump performed in a steady, presidential manner in his first prime-time speech since last winter’s State of the Union address. He has little choice but to send more troops and counterterrorism advisers to Afghanistan (a modest increase, reportedly), given the precarious moment the U.S. has reached there. The Islamic State is trying to gain a foothold, vying for influence with the Taliban and Al Qaeda while the U.S.-backed Afghan government remains in disarray.
These are challenging centrifugal forces, and Trump did his best Monday to assure citizens he looked at all the options over several months. He relied on a strategic review by top generals — chiefly Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster — who grasp the complexities much better than he does.
He even leveled with his audience that an analytical, decidedly non-Trumpian skill set was required for this task. “My original instinct was to pull out,” he said, “and historically I like following my instincts.”
Trump also acknowledged the elephant in the room to his military audience in Arlington, Virginia — the same elephant that’s stalked him since he stoked racial divisions in the days after the violence in nearby Charlottesville.
“The young men and women we sent to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home,” he said.
It’s a point all citizens should agree on, though consistent polling indicates many have grave doubts about Trump’s temperament and ability to lead the healing.
Trump borrowed talking points from Obama’s surge speech of 2009, such as his vow to uproot terror cells in Pakistan and his promise not to be drawn into a limitless conflict. Both presidents used the words “blank check,” each claiming he would not write one in Afghanistan.
But the 45th president tried to differentiate himself from the 44th by speaking strongly against democratic nation building, saying more than once that the U.S. would not reshape Afghanistan “in our own image.”
What should most concern anyone who heard Monday’s speech were the parts Trump left out. He refused to provide details about troop numbers, timelines or his exit stategy for a war he claims he will not needlessly prolong. He said conditions on the ground, rather than arbitrary numbers announced in advance, would dictate the level of U.S. involvement.
That’s not especially comforting for military families at JBLM and around the world who would like more clarity from their commander in chief. It’s not helpful for voters who expect reasonable benchmarks by which to hold their leaders accountable. And it’s unlikely to appeal to members of Trump’s own base, who heard him campaign loudly against foreign entanglements.
Contrast Trump’s words Monday with those of his predecessor eight years ago. Obama not only laid out his plan to send an additional 30,000 service members to Afghanistan, he promised that after 18 months they would begin to return home, which they did.
While Trump was mum, senior U.S. officials have said they expect about 4,000 troops will be deployed to bolster the 8,500 already in Afghanistan.
Despite the vagueness, Trump unmistakably put himself on record as a co-owner of this war.
On Monday, he called for an “honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives.”
The South Sound is all too familiar with these sacrifices, and stands foursquare behind this goal.