The Longest War Gets Longer

The war in Afghanistan, begun in October 2001, is the longest-running war in American history. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump announced that it will continue to run — indefinitely.

The decision represents a reversal in two respects: It does away with the decision by President Barack Obama in 2014 to phase out military operations — to bring troop levels to under 5,000 by the end of that year, and finally to a small maintenance force chiefly around the U.S. embassy in Kabul, before his second term ended in 2016.

U.S. officials were quoted as saying they expected the president to accept a Pentagon recommendation to send nearly 4,000 new troops, bringing the total currently in the country to 8,400.

That’s still far below the peak involvement, approximately 100,000, during 2010-2011. But it’s not the direction Americans expected the president to go in. And that includes Mr. Trump himself.

As he admitted candidly in his prime-time speech on Tuesday, his “original instinct was to pull out.” His vehement condemnation of prolonging a no-win war in Afghanistan is a matter of record and a campaign pledge.

But, as has happened to many other presidents, once in office, faced with the gravest responsibility and with access to information others don’t have, he has put his original instinct and campaign policy aside and made a painful but in his view necessary decision.

Woodrow Wilson, on April 2, 1917, asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany just five months after winning reelection on the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” after German U-boats sunk his policy of neutrality. John F. Kennedy had to disown the notorious “missile gap” with the Soviet Union, which had been a lynch pin of his campaign, in the first months of his presidency, when it turned out to be a fiction. Indeed, from the earliest days of the republic, it has been so. The third president, Thomas Jefferson, who had for years railed against the “despotic” fiscal edifice erected by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, was forced to leave it intact after closer examination as president revealed it to be a wise and effective system.

The man who has been criticized for his impulsiveness and belligerence made the decision to stay in Afghanistan only with the greatest reluctance. It came after months of debate within the administration, and final judgment was put off more than once to reconsider.

In the end, the president came down on the side of the generals who argued that the U.S. must stay there to keep the country clear of terrorists who would otherwise use it again as a staging ground for attacks on America and the west. The Afghan military have also been counting on continued U.S. military help.

The decision is neither popular nor populist.

A barb from Breitbart on the disgruntled right contended that “the swamp [is] getting to him” and that his
“‘America First’ base was the biggest loser” of the speech.” On the left, The Atlantic derided the stay-in policy, “which the pre-presidential Trump ridiculed for having no end point or concept of victory. He was right then.”

From the center, Politico noted acerbically that “President Trump proved one thing beyond the shadow of a doubt in his Afghanistan strategy speech Monday night: After nearly 16 years of fighting America’s longest war, there are no new ideas.”

Democrats were reflexively negative. “The president said he knew what he was getting into and had a plan to go forward. Clearly, he did not,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said. “The announcement is low on details but raises serious questions. When President Trump says there will be no ceiling on the number of troops and no timeline for withdrawal, he is declaring an open-ended commitment of American lives with no accountability to the American people.”

Among Republicans, support was not unmixed. Sen. John McCain said the plan moves “us well beyond the prior administration’s failed strategy of merely postponing defeat…It is especially important that the newly announced strategy gives no timeline for withdrawal, rather ensures that any decision to reduce our commitment in the future will be based on conditions on the ground.”

On the other hand, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan tweeted that Mr. Trump “bowed to the military industrial establishment” and “doubled down on perpetual war.”

Mr. Trump himself acknowledged that the American people are “weary of war without victory.”

“I share the America people’s frustration,” he said, but declared his belief that “in the end, we will win.”

He did not define winning. Nor did he explain how the U.S. would achieve a victory over its foes in Afghanistan, that which eluded the British and Russians before them.

The open-endedness of the president’s new policy shows both its strength and its weakness. It lacks the daring, pinpoint specificity of “the surge” in Iraq. Indeed, it’s too vague to be called a “strategy.”

However, it is to his credit that the president offered no false “light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel” optimism, and imposed no unrealistic, artificial deadlines. It was not a happy decision; but it seems to have been a necessary one. Let’s hope it’s the right one.