Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: In Afghanistan, no 'path to victory'


President Trump read a speech about Afghanistan Monday night that somebody else wrote for him, describing a policy that someone else insisted that he accept, or else.

How do we know that?

  • We know that because Trump delivered much of the speech in his "I've been taken hostage by bad people and forced to read this aloud to you" voice. As usual in such situations, he became fully animated only when he broke off script to brag or talk about all the winning we would soon do.
  • We know that because some of the speech made actual sense and roughly adhered to accepted rules of grammar and logical thought.
  • We know that because Trump's usual attention span is so short that it makes eclipse totality seem like an eternity. In other words, he couldn't be telling us the truth when he bragged that over the past few months, “I studied Afghanistan in great detail, and from every conceivable angle," and thus came up with this new strategy.

The only times that Trump is capable of studying something in great detail, and from every conceivable angle, is when he's standing on the green at the 18th hole at Mar-a-Lago, surveying a long putt. Also, when inspecting Miss Universe contestants. Otherwise no.

It also isn't true that when Trump first took office, "I fully knew what I was getting into: big and intricate problems," as he claimed Monday night. Afghanistan is a big and intricate problem that candidate Trump thought could be solved quickly and easily, basically by walking away from it as a lost cause. That's what his real-estate developer's instinct tells him to do -- if you somehow inherit somebody else's troubled project, dump it before it can become your own troubled project.

In this case, however, the generals who advise him -- both retired and active duty -- have spent the last few months insisting that no, he doesn't get to do what his instincts tell him to do. Not this time, not on this subject.

If you do walk away, they told him, you will become the president who lost the Afghan War. Trump doesn't like that idea.

If you do walk away, they added, you also will be repeating Barack Obama's "hasty withdrawal" in Iraq. They know Trump doesn't like that idea either.

Besides, the generals told him, we have devised this dramatically new approach toward Afghanistan, a strategy that nobody else had thought of before. It wouldn't be "nation-building," which Trump despises, but instead would integrate "all instruments of American power -- diplomatic, economic, and military -- toward a successful outcome."

In other words, it would be nation-building.  In fact, the strategy laid out by Trump on Monday night is pretty much just a repackaging of the strategy of the previous 16 years, a course that has left us no closer to a self-sustaining pro-Western government in Afghanistan than when we started.

Don't get me wrong: I'm glad that those generals are there, serving their country in its time of need. Every American should be glad that James Mattis, H.R. McMaster and John Kelly are sucking it up and going to work under this president. By virtue of the stars on their military uniforms and the battles that they've seen, they have a natural call upon Trump's respect enjoyed by almost no one else in Washington.

However, if you take your foreign policy advice almost solely from military leaders, you are going to get military-centric solutions. By training and nature, military leaders are always going to tell you that with some more time and resources, they can turn this thing around. Even when they can't.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.