The simplest and easiest response to President Donald Trump’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan is to highlight his 2013 tweet against further military involvement there.
“Do not allow our very stupid leaders to sign a deal that keeps us in Afghanistan through 2024 — with all costs by U.S.A.,” he tweeted, one of many before and during his campaign demanding a more isolationist view of the world, one that spends our treasure at home.
But there are no simple and easy decisions about U.S. foreign policy, about when and where in the world the United States fights to protect its interests or to defend human rights. As Trump himself said Monday in his speech to the nation, “decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.” Admitting that following your gut is not always the best course of action and reversing ill-informed views are generally positive steps eight months into the job.
And, so is the choice to keep a U.S. presence there, for now. We are deeply conflicted about Trump’s decision to commit more troops and his failure to detail a specific strategy. However, we are not confident that a full U.S. military withdrawal is the best course forward at this time.
Trump is the third president to preside over 16 years of U.S. involvement in the strife-ridden country to fight terrorism. In adopting the recommendations of his generals, Trump will seek to increase U.S. and NATO forces by up to 4,000 personnel to support the beleaguered Afghan military now fighting the Taliban, and to continue counterterrorism operations against ISIS.
Despite Trump’s claim that his approach is different, it’s more of the same policy, he just said it with more bombast than George W. Bush or Barack Obama. And it is always possible he will change his mind in a flash.
Trump painted the decision to stay in Afghanistan as part of a larger strategy in the region that could result in a negotiated end to the war. But he was not forthcoming about what would define success, or whether failure would finally get U.S. forces out of there. Or how a country divided for centuries by ethnic and tribal rivalries and failed by weak and corrupt governments would change quickly.
At the same time, it’s also hard to argue against his decision to stay in a strategic part of the world, where the United States provides some semblance of stability. And departing surely means a loss of influence to Russia, China and Iran, the regional powers vying for their own self-interest in the region. Trump should have demanded those nations stop meddling and instead help to provide stability and fight terrorists. Trump demanded Pakistan help beat back the Taliban on the battlefield. Now, he must find ways to ensure they do so.
The war in Afghanistan, invaded after the 9/11 attacks, is the longest U.S. military engagement. In 2012, Trump tweeted that “Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home.” Those initial instincts might prove to be the correct ones about a place where winning does not seem possible and losing seems probable.
But there are times when it’s better not to go with your gut.