November 16, 2016
The type of policy the Trump administration might pursue towards Afghanistan remains a mystery to everyone – quite possibly including the President-elect himself. We could hazard guesses from his campaign statements, however, what one says as a presidential candidate is often much different than how one actually governs.
This is unchartered waters for both Trump and the United States. The New York tycoon has never held a position that demands shaping public policy, never mind the foreign policy of the United States, a country whose actions, for better or for worse, affect more people than any other nation on the planet. Trump in fact will be the first president in U.S. history without any government or military experience on his resume.
Whatever policies one can reasonably extrapolate from his few ambiguous public remarks, many of which have hinted at a realpolitik attitude towards foreign relations, will likely be opposed by the team of advisors Trump seems set on assembling around him – but more on that later.
Based on the language he used on the campaign trail, Trump seems averse to “military adventurism,” long-term troop deployments and nation-building. Given his “America First” mantra, the last thing Trump will want to do is waste more time, blood and treasure in Afghanistan on what he has called a “disaster.” Trump the businessman might see it as a bad investment, perhaps asking himself: “why throw good money after bad?”
This is not necessarily an unreasonable question to pose. U.S. inspector general reports, for one, have persistently highlighted the fact that Washington’s $115 billion plus state-building adventure has been an abject failure. Not to mention the fact the Taliban are resurgent after the U.S. spent more than a decade trying to stand up Afghan forces. Meanwhile, political turmoil has gripped Kabul while corruption runs rampant through every government agency. All of these factors lend credence to the notion that U.S. policy in Afghanistan has been, for lack of a better term – a disaster.
Trump’s rhetoric over the past five years suggests his administration would favor an accelerated drawdown in Afghanistan to focus resources at home, evidenced by remarks he made to FOX’s Bill O’Reilly in 2011:
“You know in Afghanistan, they build a road. At the end of this beautiful road, they build a school. They blow up the school; they blow up the road; we then start all over again,” Trump stated. “And in New Orleans and in Alabama we can’t build schools. I want to rebuild the United States.”
Recent comments, however, would seem to suggest Trump would support at least a limited U.S. role in Afghanistan. He concurred, for example, with leaving 5,500 American servicemen, the target President Obama had set before raising the number to 8,400. In October of last year Trump conceded to CNN that the United States would probably have to maintain U.S. troops in Afghanistan because otherwise the country would collapse “about two seconds after they leave.”
Then there is Trump’s repeated vows to work with any country in the world to target and defeat the Islamic State, which could mean Washington might intensify counterterrorism activities such as drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A Trump administration would at least make a narrow commitment to Afghanistan in the sense of targeting ISIS.
Yet despite all of his rhetoric about eschewing nation-building and limiting involvement in Afghanistan, Trump is rumored to be considering a host of neoconservative candidates to fill spots in his cabinet and national security advisory roles, including people like former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton as Secretary of State.
This would change the game entirely. In fact, Bolton as top diplomat in tandem with the likes of national security guru Newt Gingrich, will push for an expanded troop presence in Afghanistan. Trump’s neoconservative aides might even promote state-building and democratization efforts. Democracy, American capitalism and boots on the ground will become the Trump administration’s recipe for defeating the scourge of terrorism in Afghanistan and across the globe.
Once the hawks and social engineers hijack his foreign policy, one could just envision the Trump administration launching yet another “surge” of troops and bearers of democracy to rebuild war-torn Afghanistan. In other words, exactly the type of policy Trump has for years vociferously denounced. In fact, Trump’s opposition to nation-building abroad while the U.S. suffers at home is one of the few stances he has remained consistent on, and the very message that helped him get elected.
But Trump the candidate was free to dictate his policy positions every step of the way, whereas Trump the president will likely be handcuffed by a cabal of neocons who will ensure the former star of The Apprentice leaves the governing to them. Neocons who, above all, will ensure that most of Trump’s pesky campaign promises never get fulfilled, especially those that hinder the business of planting and growing American-style mini-democracies across the Middle East, Central Asia and beyond.