The irony was probably lost only on the President himself. But it would have been hard for anyone else to avoid rolling their eyes or weakly smiling when Donald Trump announced his U-turn on Afghanistan with the words that the US would from henceforth be pursuing a policy of “principled realism”. Because the truth is, as is becoming increasingly clear, Trump has no principles at all.
He was for the Iraq invasion before he was against it. He was against Syrian airstrikes right up until he was in favour. He has pledged to destroy ISIS while affecting an isolationist bent. On this evidence, the man is little more than a narcissistic con-artist.
Chris Cillizza at CNN gives the following analysis of Trump’s ideological flip-flopping: “There’s no question that some of Trump’s shift is also explained by the massive difference between being a private citizen offering a critique via Twitter and being the president of the United States. The weight of the office changes people.” Reading between the lines boils this statement down to quite a basic sentiment: Trump has had to start thinking about what he says.
Commentators could scarcely believe what they were hearing when Trump admitted in April that President Xi had given him a history lesson on North Korea, taking a mere 10 minutes to help him realise “it’s not so easy”. This betrays the arrogance of the man: the fact that he had ever believed that resolving the Korean problem which has occupied the West for 60 years would be “easy” suggests a President who didn’t quite realise what the job entailed when he was brazenly tweeting from Trump Tower or hollering on the campaign trail.
And so it is Afghanistan that comes next in the list of three-point manoeuvres. Admitting that his “original instinct was to pull out”, Trump said “from now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies. Obliterating ISIS. Crushing Al Qaeda. Preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan.”
Ignoring the ideological bankruptcy of the U-turn, there is a strong moral argument for staying in. ISIS, Al Qaeda or the Taliban would impose horrific regimes on civilians in the Middle East were America to abandon the country completely. For people who oppose gang rapes, mass murder, crucifixions and beheadings, Western involvement in the Middle East to overthrow the tyranny of the aforementioned organisations or Baathists in Iraq was always presented as a morally motivated endeavour. However, as previously, the devil is the detail, with morality seldom matching the reality of any given situation in the Middle East.
The worry is that Trump has already fallen into the trap that made Iraq a foreign policy disaster. After the harrowing US experience there, policymakers broadly agreed that future overseas missions should have attainable objectives, a fixed duration, and a clear exit strategy. Trump has ignored that hard-won knowledge, committing the US to waging an open-ended conflict with no limit on its scope or duration, and with no agreed measure of what constitutes victory.
Another issue is that the numbers involved simply aren’t big enough. Troop levels in Afghanistan under Barack Obama reached 30,000, before receding to the current level of 8,400. The Pentagon is suggesting the number increases by 4,000. This is clearly insufficient. If defeating the Taliban is the genuine aim of President Trump, then a deployment surge on the level of Obama in 2009 would make more practical sense. After 16 years of warfare, however, the Pentagon is understandably squeamish about a policy that would undoubtedly result in more American and Afghan civilian casualties without any assurance of success- whatever that may be.
One of the more respectable aspects of Trump’s speech was to ramp up pressure on Pakistan to stop harbouring terrorists. A less supplicant attitude towards Pakistan is undoubtedly required, as Maajid Nawaz is quite clear in his belief that “Pakistan’s intelligence services have been the backdoor sponsors of a resurgent Taliban”. Believing a friendly regime in Afghanistan to the West offers them some security from India in the East, the Taliban have been aided and abetted by the Pakistani government according to Nawaz’ analysis. This must stop, and Trump is right to take a less deferential stance.
However, one wonders whether such strategic analysis of Trump’s decisions is a waste of time. The likelihood remains that there is no strategy. There is no grand plan. There is no moral, ethical, or philosophical calculation. There’s only Trump, and how he feels from one moment to the next.