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It’s all about not losing in Afghanistan

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MateenK View Drop Down
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    Posted: 26-Aug-2017 at 2:22am
Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and the senior U.S. Embassy official, special charge d’affairs Hugo Llorens, spoke at a joint news conference about the importance of reaching a settlement with the Taliban in an attempt to end the nearly 16-year war.

In an address Monday, Trump focused on “winning” the war and depicted an accord as a remote possibility. Both U.S. officials were careful to avoid contradicting the president, framing their comments as additional “details” and reinforcement of his message.

“We are determined to pursue the goal of a political settlement. As these terrorist groups realize that they cannot win, they will see that their best option is to pursue peace,” Nicholson said. He invited the Taliban to “lay down your arms and join Afghan society. Help build a better future for this country and your own children.”

While Trump disparaged “nation-building,” the generals recognized that political and economic reform is as important as military success. (“Llorens said it would ‘integrate all the instruments of American power,’ including diplomacy and economic support.”)

In essence, Trump’s rhetoric is a less reliable barometer of what we are actually trying to accomplish in Afghanistan.

Back from a recent trip there, Max Boot explains:

[A]ll the briefings I received from American officials were about nation-building. Admittedly, no one used that term — the preferred euphemisms are “capacity building,” “enabling” and “working by, through and with.” But the intent is the same: to create Afghan government institutions that can overcome the threats from the Taliban, the Haqqani network, the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups active in that country.

The United States really has no alternatives. It is willing neither to abandon Afghanistan, that way allowing it once again to become a safe haven for transnational terrorists, nor to put the entire combat mission on the backs of United States forces, an effort that would call for the deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops.

So, contrary to Trump’s remarks, we aren’t aiming for a military victory, we are nation-building and our policy is much more similar to that of his predecessors than it is different (absent a clear improvement, namely no fixed timetables). It’s not clear whether the speech was an attempt by the military triumvirate (Defense Secretary James Mattis, NSA Director H.R. McMaster and chief of staff John Kelly) to convince Trump he’s aiming for a “win” or to convince America we can still “win.” Perhaps it is some of both. The downside of taking Trump “seriously but not literally” in this context is clear. This is a democracy, and leaders have an obligation to be transparent with voters so they can be held accountable for their actions. As a practical matter, it’s never wise to set up voters for a surprise, namely an eventual end to fighting that leaves the Taliban in some sort of power-sharing arrangement. In other words, it would be nice if our leaders had enough confidence in themselves and faith in the American people to just tell it like it is.

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