On Monday night, President Trump gave his long-anticipated speech announcing his plans for the war in Afghanistan. There were two interpretations of the speech, depending on which pundits one chooses to believe. It was either devoid of content and little more than an attempt to shift the narrative after a disastrous week for the president. Or, it marked the umpteenth time that Trump has pivoted and finally become presidential (I write this just hours after the Phoenix rally, where it appears this pivot turned out to be just as short-lived as the last dozen have been).
One point that all observers agree on, though, is that Trump didn’t discuss specifics of his plan, particularly with regard to troop numbers. Other sources have suggested, however, that a modest increase in troops – in the range of a few thousand – is likely.
According to one analysis of the speech, Trump’s team has carved out a “middle path” that neither ends U.S. involvement in Afghanistan (a key campaign promise) nor does it move the U.S. any closer to victory. Trump is “facing the bleak reality of Afghanistan: there is no fast or politically palatable way to win, but losing quickly isn’t an acceptable option, either.” Instead, the status quo is likely to be maintained, with an American military presence in Afghanistan enduring into the 2020s.
The United States, like the British in the nineteenth century and the Soviets in the twentieth, is stuck in the “Afghan albatross.”
It was not supposed to be this way. In his initial speech committing the U.S. to action in October of 2001, President George W. Bush urged “patience,” but he also spoke of the mission in terms of weeks, not months.
Yet a different reality became apparent almost immediately. Soon after Bush’s announcement, the Atlantic observed that “a bombing campaign against the Taliban that was expected to last only a few days has instead continued for almost three weeks, with little indication that it will soon wind down, and military leaders are gearing up for what may probe to be a lengthy ground war.”
It’s likely, though, that even this writer wouldn’t have expected the lengthy ground war to still be on sixteen years later. But here we are.
Observers have offered no shortage of explanations for why things have turned out as they have. The most popular is that the war had unclear goals from the outset. What would define victory? Would it come with the capture or death of Bin Laden? The total defeat of the Taliban? A stable nation with a functioning central government? Add to this uncertainty about goals frequent changes in personnel and not-always-reliable partners, and the recipe for an open-ended war becomes clear.
But there’s a more compelling argument to be made that larger, systemic problems in American society have also contributed to this seemingly endless war. Back in our Memorial Day chat, I mentioned James Fallows’ concept of the United States as a “chickenhawk nation.” Fallows argues that while Americans cheer the military and love the idea of the country having powerful armed forces, few people have any real contact with members of the military in their daily lives. As of 2014, in fact, less than 1% of Americans had served in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
In practice, this lack of meaningful contact with the reality of military life enables wars that drag on endlessly. Policies like Trump’s “middle path,” which perpetuate conflict without victory or defeat, are the policies of a citizenry that wants to enjoy the idea of a military without actually dealing with the consequences of having one.
Earlier this year, the historian Andrew Bacevich described what happens when a country’s population becomes detached and allows the military to engage in perpetual wars. “Members of the national security apparatus,” he wrote, “accept war a normal condition,” and it becomes “an enterprise to be managed rather than terminated as quickly as possible.”
That, Bacevich noted in March, is where we are with Afghanistan. And given the content of the president’s speech, it’s where we’re likely to be for years – if not decades – to come.