Good speech, wrong president

It was a good speech, but one given by the wrong president.

Wrong first because President Trump has done far more to divide Americans in the last seven months than to unite them. His emphasis on the importance of unity at home to the successful pursuit of the war in Afghanistan was well founded. Without a common understanding of why we are fighting and what success looks like, sustaining support for America’s longest war will be impossible. But Donald Trump and his sympathy for neo-Nazi white supremacists are not going to foster that kind of solidarity. His talk now of how bigotry has no place is insufficient. He needs to do far more to fight bigotry, by dropping for example the Administration’s vigorous efforts to prevent minorities from voting.

Wrong because the President claimed that the strategy–fight to create the political conditions for a successful negotiation with the Taliban–is new and that he will be able to pursue it. It’s not new. That is precisely what convinced President Obama to send more troops, but the conditions never proved ripe. Dick Holbrooke and his successors as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (the ones I remember are Marc Grossman, Jim Dobbins, and Laurel Miller) were among the very best available, not only in this country but also abroad. Trump has now all but dismantled the civilian apparatus they built to pursue America’s political and diplomatic goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has no means left to pursue the strategy he falsely claims he is inventing.

Wrong because Trump betrays America’s weakness when he so blatantly begs for allies to share more burdens and India to play a key role in spurring Afghanistan’s economy. Only a clear and unequivocal US commitment , not “tin cupping” as it is known in the halls of Foggy Bottom, will encourage others to come on board. Burden sharing is a consequence of leadership, not a pre-condition for it. Leaders lead.

Wrong because Trump excludes “nation-building,” without which success in Afghanistan is simply not possible. Only a capable and legitimate Afghan state will be able to establish the law and order required to eliminate safe havens for international terrorists. Trump, like all of his predecessors, tries to exclude the kind of civilian commitment to help the Afghans over a generation that will be required to establish anything resembling the rule of law. But what else would prevent a Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Islamic State resurgence? Only American special operators, in the forever war Trump denies he is pursuing.

Wrong because there is another answer to that question: neighbors matter. Trump bluntly threatened to cut off aid to Pakistan. That hasn’t worked well in the past; we’ll have to wait and see how it works this time around. He failed to mention China, Russia, and Iran, all of which play important roles inside Afghanistan and in the region. They have all also been at odds with the US in Afghanistan. Where is the strategy for rallying the neighbors to the cause?

My compliments to the generals: Mattis, McMaster and Kelly have made Trump sound decent and even patriotic. But he is far from the right guy to unify America behind a renewal of this 17-year-old war, especially if he ignores the civilian role in fixing what ails Afghanistan and bringing other major powers to support the effort. Good speech, wrong president.

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