The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Just Don't Lose, Baby


One of the Oakland Raiders' slogans is all about winning: "Just Win, Baby." Despite the President's statement that "we will win," I don't think this describes the goal of the President's Af-Pak policy. Rather, I think David Ignatius' op-ed on Trump's policy on Afghanistan gets it right. At a minimum, the President's new policy, whatever its eventual contours, is about ensuring that Afghanistan is not lost on his watch, meaning over the next 3 or so years. It is also designed to ensure that the Taliban cannot host Al-Qaeda or ISIS training camps.

The President claimed he was moving from a time-based approach to one focused on conditions. The idea is that the Taliban (and Pakistan) will not wait out the United States if they know that our commitment has no certain end date. I don't think this new approach will matter one bit. The Taliban (and their Pakistani patrons) aren't going to lose heart because this President makes a "conditions" based commitment of troops. The Taliban has been fighting for decades, even before 9-11. They aren't going to cry "uncle" because the President made an open-ended commitment.

The next "new" element was to condemn Pakistan for sheltering terrorists who kill American soldiers and to call upon Pakistan to "change [that policy] immediately." This has caused Pakistan to complain of a "false narrative." But this is propaganda. The President is merely saying what everyone familiar with Af-Pak policy knows: Pakistan is a state sponsor of terrorism. The question is what stands behind the President's exhortation?

Perhaps messages are being delivered to the Pakistan military and the Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistan military intelligence unit that funds terrorists. Undoubtedly these messages will convey something like "We really mean it!" But such talk is cheap. What are we actually going to do when Pakistani proxies and allies continue to kill American soldiers or launch terrorist attacks in Afghanistan? As Zalmay Khalilzad has indicated, Pakistan will "test" the President's mettle and attempt to show that Pakistan holds all the cards. Will he launch numerous attacks on Pakistani based terrorists without Pakistani approval?

The final element is lifting restrictions on how the war is fought. The President said that "[m]icromanagement from Washington" is over. I've read suggestions that this policy has proven a success in the fight against ISIS. Maybe so. But the Taliban can always slink back over the Af-Pak border and wait out this President.

I'd like to become "sick and tired of winning" in Afghanistan. But I can't help but being a little pessimistic.