President Trump has chosen to continue the war effort in Afghanistan. Trump has been criticizing the Afghan effort for years, but is now surrounded by generals in his administration who have been preoccupied with “winning” there for over a decade. They and others like them have convinced the president that either for some military purpose, or for the purposes of his political prestige he must recommit to an endless war there.
The Cato Institute’s vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies, Chris Preble (who I’ve called The Most Important Person You May Have Never Heard Of) says that America’s political reality creates a recipe for continued conflict. Fear of failure, or of being blamed for a failure that’s already baked into the cake, scares politicians into continuing a war effort they know in their hearts is foolish. Chris writes:
President Trump’s rhetoric echoes the conventional wisdom in Washington. Few presidents are criticized for using military force. More often, they are hit for not intervening often enough. Or trying hard enough. Or long enough. Withdrawal without victory is a particularly odious sin.
Therefore, when Donald Trump was presented with an opportunity to redirect U.S. attention and resources, he ignored both the reasonable and well-considered suggestions to withdraw, as well as the foolish and quixotic proposals. Instead, he chose to kick the can down the road. Although he didn’t tell the American people how many additional troops will be sent to Afghanistan, increasing the size of the force already there will not be sufficient to turn the tide there, a point that he admitted during his speech. American military power is insufficient to bring an enduring political settlement to a country the size of Afghanistan.
But while leaving U.S. troops in Afghanistan hasn’t made it easier to win (whatever that means), Trump has made it harder for his successor to leave at a later date.
Imagine a scenario in the late summer of 2021, in which the next occupant of the White House is confronted with a choice on whether to stay or withdraw. He or she will agonize over it—as Trump did, and as Obama did, too.
In all likelihood, that successor will also conclude that leaving isn’t worth the political hit. President 46 will leave the force in place, or modestly increase it, but without expecting to ever actually win, or ever quit. The object, as with Trump, will be to avoid the appearance of defeat.
Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s a recipe for continual conflict.
When any president is given the option of either backing away from the use of American military power, or doubling down on past efforts, the easiest course—politically—is to continue the war.
President Trump has chosen the easiest course. The man who prides himself on ignoring polls and focus groups, and making decisions on the basis of what is best for the country, has behaved no differently than his predecessors.
Read more here.