The New York Times had a troubling — yet somehow unsurprising — piece on the disarray in the Trump administration’s policy-making on Afghanistan this week. On one hand, we are assured that we are very close to a deal with the Taliban that would entail a substantial draw-down of the U.S. troop presence in return for unspecified commitments from the Taliban. On the other, we hear from anonymous sources that there is disagreement about how much covert presence we should retain there, as well as whether that presence should be led by the CIA or the Pentagon.
Remember that it was the Taliban government of Afghanistan that sheltered Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in 2001: The 9/11 attacks were planned and ordered from Taliban Afghanistan. That was the casus belli — justification for our invasion of Afghanistan, with the support of the U.N. Security Council. We were justified in making war on Afghanistan (unlike the subsequent invasion of Iraq, which lacked international support). Yet we were not necessarily wise in making war the way we did.
By staging a full-bore conventional invasion and occupation, we succeeded quickly in ousting the Taliban and installing a more friendly government. But in doing so we took full ownership of the country without ever actually being able to assert full control. Thus Afghanistan has become our longest war, a quagmire that Donald Trump promised to get us out of. But to get us out he must negotiate with the very force — the Taliban — that the initial invasion was to have vanquished. He is negotiating the terms of a surrender that can be dressed up as something else. What shade of lipstick shall we put on the pig?
This fundamental contradiction in Trump’s stance toward Afghanistan is compounded, as the NYT makes clear, by the deep disarray within the administration. Trump and some advisers just want to get out, while the more conventional foreign policy hands argue that we have to maintain a substantial presence to prevent the re-emergence of international terrorism based in Afghanistan. The CIA apparently would be OK with staying in, but only if they had adequate military backup. The Pentagon doesn’t seem to be comfortable with that.
You would think they would have worked all this out before starting the negotiations with the Taliban. But rational policy-making is not Trump’s strong suit.
And we must further remind ourselves of the irony of such public discussion of what is supposedly Top-Secret information. Since at least the Reagan administration we have seen confidential sources within the government engage in self-serving releases of secret information. Remember the “covert” U.S. support for the Nicaraguan Contras? It is now so utterly routine for the media to publish secret information about government operations, that we forget that there are good reasons for the secrecy (at least from the government’s point of view). If you’re perpetrating “dirty tricks” you want deniability.
Trump just did it himself a few days ago when he tweeted a photo of an Iranian missile site, thereby confirming to the Iranians that we had a drone operating in the area. These revelations always serve the immediate interests of the source (public in the case of Trump’s tweet, but more often anonymous).
Our current contradictory posture on Afghanistan is one more instance of an administration that seems incapable of a coherent foreign policy.
How could it, when the president himself is incoherent?
John Peeler is a retired professor of political science at Bucknell. He lives in Lewisburg.