WASHINGTON >> Never tip your hand to the enemy. No timelines for military operations. No free pass for a neighbor who tolerates extremists or enables U.S. foes.
In President Donald Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy, elements of a broader approach to America’s most pressing national security concerns begin to emerge, consistent with his efforts in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Though details are limited, the plan draws on organizing principles that are also woven throughout his plans for defeating the Islamic State group and containing the threats posed by North Korea and Iran.
Trump’s advisers say his Afghan strategy reflects a consistent world view, both in terms of America’s overseas objectives and the tactics to achieve them. But it’s too soon to say whether he is being driven by a well-formed doctrine or merely coining catchphrases on the fly.
“We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists,” Trump said in his Monday night speech. He was striving to differentiate his plan from failed approaches of the past.
As a candidate and then as president, Trump has eluded those who have tried to identify core beliefs that can reliably predict how he’ll approach any given issue. Critics have painted him as a foreign policy novice, focused only on somehow showing he’s winning.
Trump ran on a nationalist pledge to put “America First.” But he explained this week that things look different from the Oval Office. Conceding he was overriding an initial instinct to withdraw from Afghanistan, he peppered his speech with vows to empower commanders and to squeeze Pakistan for harboring the Taliban.
While Trump has cast his approach as a fundamental shift from other presidents, he’s borrowed more from them than he’s inclined to admit.
George W. Bush, too, sought to pressure Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban, even as he focused far more on an idea Trump is explicitly rejecting: promoting democracy around the world.
And Trump’s limited approach owes something to Barack Obama, who in his second term scaled back U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and settled on a counterterror-focused mission not dissimilar from the new American strategy.
A look at the pillars of Trump’s foreign policy:
MIND YOUR BUSINESS
The days of the U.S. military trying to “construct democracies” are over, Trump declared. Instead, he said “principled realism” will guide U.S. decisions.
That means there will be none of Bush’s “nation-building” — no expansive goal to build up Afghanistan’s institutions and ensure the education of girls once the U.S. ultimately withdraws.
Trump’s approach in Syria is similar. There, as the Islamic State is ousted from its last major strongholds and a power vacuum results, Trump’s administration has said it wants to help restore electricity, water and sewage in areas freed from IS — but no more. In Iraq, the situation is somewhat easier because there’s a globally backed central government.
In Afghanistan, some questions still must be cleared up. Despite his vow of non-interference, Trump emphasized he could hold back future military and economic aid unless the Afghan government combats problems including rampant corruption.
“We’re not going to tell these countries how to govern, but we’re going to condition our assistance on reforms — that’s an internal contradiction,” said James Dobbins, a senior diplomat in the past three administrations and former special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
KEEP YOUR PLANS QUIET
Of all the critiques of Trump’s plan, the loudest is that he declined to tell Americans how many more U.S. troops will be sent to Afghanistan after 16 years of fighting.
His rationale is simple: Deny the Taliban and other extremists the advantage of anticipating U.S. military moves.
However, the contours of the Pentagon’s plan have been known for months. Senior officials said today up to 3,900 more troops will go, some possibly within days.
Being unpredictable to U.S. adversaries has been a consistent Trump focus. The president was similarly coy in April in the days before he attacked Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces for using chemical weapons. He has repeatedly refused to entertain questions about a potential pre-emptive attack on North Korea.
“We don’t talk about that. I never do,” Trump has said.
Rather than centralize military decision-making in the White House, a critique often leveled at Obama, Trump has delegated much of the authority to his defense secretary and war zone commanders.
“Micromanagement from Washington, D.C., does not win battles,” he said in his Afghanistan speech.
Even before he unveiled his Afghan plan, the White House announced he’d given the Pentagon final say on how many troops to send. And in April, his top commander in Afghanistan was allowed to use the “mother of all bombs,” the largest non-nuclear bomb ever dropped in combat. There was no need for the White House signoff.
Trump has similarly ceded decision-making about military actions in Syria and Iraq to his commanders, along with decisions about counterterror strikes against targets in several countries.
“He clearly is much more willing to give the military latitude on tactical decision than President Obama was,” said Ambassador James Jeffrey, Bush’s former deputy national security adviser. “That’s all in all a good thing for this kind of conflict.”
CRACKDOWN ON ENABLERS
As Trump vowed to get tough on Pakistan, accusing it of giving “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror,” diplomatic and military officials heard echoes of his plan for North Korea.
For more than a decade, the U.S. has pressed Islamabad to snuff out Taliban sanctuaries. Many of the group’s leaders reside in Pakistan, traveling freely across the Afghanistan border. Taliban wounded are treated in Pakistani hospitals.
With North Korea, it’s China that must feel the weight of U.S. pressure, Trump has said. He has tried to squeeze Beijing into cutting off lifelines of economic support to North Korea to make it harder for Pyongyang to develop weapons that could harm the U.S.
LET LOCALS LEAD
In Afghanistan, as in Iraq and Syria, Trump’s plan centers on training local forces to fight insurgents rather than relying on Americans to do most of the fighting. While the same strategy was employed by Obama, Trump has claimed credit since taking office.
“The confidence that the American people and the world heard last night from our commander in chief derives from the fact that this is exactly the approach that President Trump directed in Iraq and in Syria,” Vice President Mike Pence said today.