On Aug. 21, President Donald Trump addressed the nation on his Administration’s policy towards Afghanistan. The speech marked a vision of an independent Afghanistan and a victory in the now-16-year-old war. The speech was quite a contradiction; to many, they viewed it as a fulfillment of President Trump’s campaign promises, while to others, it marked a return to the status quo of Presidents Bush and Obama.
One of then-candidate Trump’s promises through the primary and general elections was a promotion of putting “America First,” which includes ending conflicts in the Middle East, among other things. The language of his speech mirrors this sentiment, saying that “ultimately, it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future,” and “we are not nation-building again. We’re killing terrorists.” President Trump also didn’t give many details about the operation, opting to say “we will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.”
Though many Americans were left disappointed and disillusioned with the President, it is speculated that one of the reasons then-candidate Trump won the Republican primary is because of his commitment to ending the quagmire of conflict in the Middle East, while the other candidates offered strategies to increase military involvement in the region. He spoke about his transition in his speech: “my original instinct was to pull out. And historically, I like following my instincts. But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”
President Trump arrived at this conclusion on Aug. 18, “at Camp David with my cabinet and generals to complete our strategy.” He arrived at three negative consequences of ending the engagement in Afghanistan, which cemented his decision to stay involved:
First, the United States must win the war in Afghanistan. Anything less than that would be a disgrace to the country and the veterans who fought in it.
Second, if the United States were to exit too quickly, Afghanistan would soon become destabilized, and all the progress made would be lost.
Third, the terrorist threats are too great: “today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.” If these groups were to take on more power and grow, they would be threats to the United States and allies in the region.
These conclusions are very similar to those of Presidents Bush and Obama, when they each considered troop removal and U.S. exit strategies. The familiarity of these actions is what anger many of President Trump’s loyal supporters.
It is quite possible that Trump is trying to straddle the line between his base and the consensus of the military and his generals. This speech seems like an attempt to do just that. The rhetoric of putting America first is characteristically Trumpian, while the decision to continue combat in Afghanistan is more in-line with the Washington Establishment.