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Two presidents promised victory in Afghanistan, but will Trump win?

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OP-ED

by Stephen Saideman

The Globe and Mail
August 22, 2017

At first glance, Donald Trump’s new moves in Afghanistan seem a lot like Barack Obama’s in 2009. Both presidents faced U.S. senior officers pushing for more troops and assented. President Trump was initially reluctant, whereas Mr. Obama’s reluctance grew over time. Both presidents promised victory, but it remains unclear how many more troops will get us there. To be clear, Mr. Trump was right that he inherited a bad hand in Afghanistan, just as Mr. Obama did in 2009. This time, Mr. Trump seems to have chosen Joe Biden’s preferred plan – counterterrorism rather than counterinsurgency – but with much less political guidance.

There are several other key differences between then and now.

First and foremost, while Mr. Trump said that allies would join this escalation (he didn’t use the word “surge”), this may be unlikely. For most allies, sending troops requires parliamentary votes. To get approval requires their politicians to become tied to the President of the United States. Mr. Obama was able to get more commitments out of European countries during his surge in 2010 because he had much political capital; he was – and remains – quite popular in Europe. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, is widely reviled in Europe. Politicians are far more likely to compete to be more distant from him (see Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel), than to make a costly commitment to join Mr. Trump’s coalition.

Given that he is promising a war with fewer political restrictions – which raises the threat of more civilian casualties – it is hard to envision many European leaders joining this effort. Remember, it became far harder for countries to co-operate with the United States in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. Parliaments literally wrote restrictions into the mandates of the missions saying that their troops could not co-operate with the American counterterrorism effort (Operation Enduring Freedom), especially after news broke about Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Since Mr. Trump is practically promising war crimes, it is hard to see how the Europeans (or Canada) will embrace the mission.

Second, while Mr. Trump was not specific with numbers, the force will likely only be a small addition – something like four or five thousand troops joining the approximately 9,000 or so already deployed. The idea seems to be to train and assist and mentor in the battlefield. During the Afghanistan campaign from 2006-14, small groups of coalition troops were embedded in Afghan units. If these units fell apart and retreated, the foreign troops were not at much risk, since nearly all operations by the Afghan army were in conjunction with conventional military units from the U.S. and its partners. This time, there will simply not be enough troops to back up the embedded troops. Thus, the risks are higher.

Third, Mr. Trump promises fewer restrictions on troops and less oversight. While this plays well to various audiences, it was the counterinsurgency fans, generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, who argued that too much violence was bad for the war effort, not Mr. Obama. It appears to be the case that Mr. Trump has increased tolerance of civilian casualties, as there have been more during his presidency than in comparable periods of Mr. Obama’s. It is not clear that fewer restrictions on troops leads to more victory, as the Soviets were far more brutal in Afghanistan than NATO and had worse results.

Fourth, Mr. Trump plans to confront Pakistan more than Mr. Obama did. Yes, Pakistan has supported anti-American and anti-NATO troops. However, previous administrations had no choice but to rely on Pakistan, as geography dictated that supplies for U.S. and NATO forces mostly go through it. The other ways into Afghanistan are through Russia and Iran, which are unlikely to co-operate. Having a smaller number of troops may make this effort less dependent on Pakistan, but airlifting everything is difficult. In short, confronting Pakistan is easier said than done.

Donald Trump’s speech is hardly the last word on this. Indeed, it is very likely that the generals will eventually ask him for more troops, just as Mr. McChrystal asked Mr. Obama for more troops. Victory will remain elusive despite Mr. Trump’s rhetoric. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to prevent Afghanistan from losing.

Stephen M. Saideman is Paterson chair in international affairs at Carleton University and the author of Adapting in the Dust: Lessons Learned from Canada’s War in Afghanistan.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Defense.gov

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