3 Things to Expect from Trump's Afghanistan Address Tonight
Surge, strategy, status quo
President Donald Trump is expected to announce a surge of "several thousand" troops to Afghanistan in a speech he will deliver to the nation from Fort Meyers at 9:00 ET tonight.
Despite Trump's wildcard tendencies, the contents of tonight's address should be fairly predictable. Whatever anti-establishment foreign policy rhetoric Trump may have deployed during the campaign, his administration appears to have coalesced into a fairly establishment-minded group, particularly on foreign policy. Here are three things we can expect to hear about in tonight's address:
1. The Surge Itself
Ultimately, the decision on Afghanistan is a binary one: Either the U.S. stays, or it goes. Surging means staying.
In 2013 Trump lambasted America's "stupid leaders" for signing a deal to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan until 2024, adding that the U.S. had "wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan" and got "zero appreciation" from the Afghan government. Such rhetoric has been missing more recently. The conflict barely got mentioned during the 2016 presidential campaign, and for the most part it has receded from the public consciousness.
President Barack Obama announced a troop surge of his own in a December 2009 address, bemoaning an Afghan government "hampered by corruption, the drug trade, an under-developed economy, and insufficient security forces." Trump may say something similar.
Eight years after the Obama troop surge, there's nothing positive to show for it in Afghanistan. That surge, like the one Trump is expected to announce, simply prolonged our presence in the country.
Trump has already authorized the Pentagon to send an additional 3,900 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, so tonight's announcement will probably stay within that limit. There are currently about 8,000 U.S. troops in the country.
2. Pakistan and other regional partners
The administration is mulling several possible ways to pressure Pakistan. According to CBS News, these include "reducing aid, taking away its status as a non-NATO ally, and threatening to name Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism."
Terror groups like the so-called Haqqani network operate out of Pakistan, and in 2011 the U.S. found and killed Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, in a posh Pakistan neighborhood.
The Russians, who seem to have cut and run on any possibility of converting any pro-Russian sentiments Trump expressed on the 2016 campaign trail into improved U.S.-Russian relations, have signaled that Washington should withdraw from Afghanistan if it's "unable to do anything serious." Nevertheless, instability in Afghanistan poses a security concern for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Russia's response to a post–Cold War NATO, and it would be worthwhile to try to engage Russia, as well as China, on what complete withdrawal from Afghanistan will look like.
A negotiated withdrawal involving the Afghan government and the Taliban would probably work best if it included Pakistan as well as other regional powers, who ought to be more vested in a stable future for Afghanistan than the U.S. is. Tonight's address would be a good place to articulate that, though Trump is more likely to scapegoat Pakistan than to sketch out any new efforts at regional cooperation.
3. Blaming Obama
Whether or not Trump mentions his predecessor by name, he's probably going to lay most of the blame for the mess in Afghanistan on Obama's doorstep. He may also, as he was wont to do before becoming an elected Republican official, criticize George W. Bush for allowing the conflict to fester for its first seven years instead of bringing it to a close after obliterating the core of Al Qaeda and removing the Taliban from power.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), has blamed a lack of "strategic guidance" across presidential administrations for years of failures in Afghanistan. But for years now there has been a lot of ambiguity about why the U.S. remains in Afghanistan in the first pace. That ambiguity isn't resolved during presidential campaigns, and it isn't resolved in the addresses new presidents give to the nation about the war's purported progress.
Trump will likely continue the tradition of blaming his predecessor for Afghanistan. But without interrogating why the U.S. has stayed in Afghanistan for so long, that's a useless exercise.