President Donald Trump effectively reversed his position on Afghanistan when he outlined his new policy for the 16-year-old war to the nation Monday night.
Trump was once a noted skeptic of America's continued presence well before he was even a candidate for president. He argued that the U.S. should be spending money on rebuilding the country, not a foreign land thousands of miles away.
Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2013
Those sentiments were not on display on Monday, when Trump announced that instead of withdrawing, the U.S. would be reinvigorating the fight against the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Islamic State in what has become the nation's longest ever war. Included in Trump's plan is a new authority for the Pentagon to raise troops levels by several thousand. Though the president refused to give an exact number of forces to be deployed, Fox News' Jennifer Griffin reported 4,000 troops could be added to the approximately 8,500 American troops currently stationed inside the country.
The change of heart reportedly took some serious convincing. Trump's skepticism remained even after he took over the Oval Office, despite the best efforts of some of his generals, including national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who allegedly pushed Trump to adopt a more conventional strategy in Afghanistan for months. But not everyone in the administration was convinced.
Former chief strategist Steve Bannon shared Trump's skepticism. He suggested an alternative and characteristically unconventional plan which would see private military contractors take over responsibilities for U.S. troops, according to reports.
"It wasn't a realistic idea ... among anyone who's serious about these matters and these issues," Luke Coffey, director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation, told me in an interview. "Private military contractors play a role in warfare ... but they can't be a substitute for actual uniformed military personnel."
Bannon resigned from his post on Friday, effectively nullifying the contractor idea.
Trump noted three major factors changed his opinion on Afghanistan. First, the need for an honorable end to the war which respects those who have sacrificed over the years. Second, the possibility that a quick withdrawal could leave a vacuum to be filled by nefarious actors, similar to what happened in Iraq with the Islamic State. Third, because of the 20 terrorist groups still operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In addition to setting troop levels, Trump also will be giving the military more autonomy when it comes to engaging the enemy, something the Obama administration had previously limited. Like Obama, Trump is also keeping the possibility of a negotiated solution open, but noted he will not place arbitrary time lines on troop withdrawals. The president also put Pakistan on notice that it's continued support of the Taliban will no longer be acceptable. Trump's skepticism did shine through on one point: no more nation building. The U.S. mission will instead be focused on killing terrorists.
If Trump is to be successful with his strategy, he will have to avoid some of the mistakes of his predecessors. Obama's attempts to implement time lines, and the uncertainty that followed, being one of them.
"I think however well motivated, that was ultimately not productive," Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told me in an interview. "Because it gave the insurgents hope that the next year or two they might win the way. It gave the Pakistanis who sometimes support the insurgents reason to think they needed that back up plan in case the Afghan government fell. So that gave the Pakistanis reason to hold on to the Taliban and keep supporting them. And it gave many Afghans ... a great deal of anxiety which led to a greater exodus of some of the more talented people from that country."
In an effort to avoid those previous pitfalls, O'Hanlon recommended Trump sticks to his new policy review at least for the remainder of his term.
Trump will not only have to effectively implement the new policy, but he will also have to convince skeptics across the political spectrum the war in Afghanistan is still worth fighting.