|Bala Hissar Fortress, Kabul, at the time of the 1842 war, via British Battles.|
I imagine Trump's address on Afghanistan tonight is going to be on the sober side, sticking fairly resolutely to the script that's been prepared for him in the hope of getting the broadcast media to call it "presidential", and since the actual policy change is supposed to be pretty modest, just adding another 4,000 troops to the 8,000 that are there, in contrast to the 100,000 US troops at the height of the Obama "surge" in 2011-12, the media discussion is mostly going to be about him, and whether he does or doesn't "demonstrate the stability and competence he needs to be successful", as old Senator Corker complained last week; as Corey Robin says:
Social media will focus entirely on the rhetoric. The theme of the commentary will be something like: Trump consolidating his shaky presidency with imperial violence abroad! Media falls for new Trump presidency grounded in imperial violence abroad! And then by Wednesday, it’ll all be forgotten. The discussion will have moved on to Trump’s latest tweet, whatever surge in the polls Trump got from his announcement will be countermanded by whatever barbarity he utters in his tweet.
But while everyone will be talking about the “insanity” of this presidency and this moment, there’ll be almost no discussion of the real insanity of this moment: that yet another US president continues, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, the longest war in US history—a war that shows no sign of being winnable—simply because no US president wants to be the one who lost Afghanistan.I think it might even be a bit worse than that, on a couple of counts.
For one thing, the new "strategy" isn't necessarily as modest as the narrative is telling us. General Mattis has been anxiously saying that it isn't an Afghanistan strategy but a "South Asia" strategy, which means basically that it's also about Pakistan, where numerous Taliban cells and the so-called Haqqani network (and, they always used to say, Taliban sympathizers in the military) work both sides of the border to complicate the Afghanistan situation. According to the Times coverage, that aspect of the new strategy is going to be mainly about the use of US money for the Pakistani military—giving it or withholding it or laying down conditions—but there's a side the president and generals won't talk about, which is the presence of CIA troops in Pakistan. Looks like Afghanistan is going to escape Erik Prince's private army for the time being, but the equally unaccountable CIA force in Pakistan, intriguing and conducting its drone war in the borderlands, will still be there, killing.
And then another aspect is likely (I think I heard this on NPR this morning) to be the continued loosening of restraints on our military, especially with respect to bombing—restraints the Obama administration worked so hard to install from 2011 through 2016 to hold down civilian casualties, though I guess not very successfully in Afghanistan, where civilian deaths caused by NATO and government strike were already way up last year. Coalition was handling things better in Iraq and Syria, and they're much worse there now.
I will say about tonight's speech, in spite of Corey, that the more Trump looks "presidential", the more he'll be under the generals' control. That's how it will be staged, like an episode in Celebrity Apprentice, to look as if he's selected the best contestant to lead this week's effort, after considering all their ideas judiciously, with the Trump frown, showing him decisive, but of course the plan is pretty much their wish list, the kind of thing people like Mattis have been agitating for for a while. In reality Emperor Trump has nothing to do with it, other than showing up to take the credit. As I always say, there is a good side to this (Trump's not in charge) and a bad side (there is no civilian control over the military). It's uncharted constitutional territory, and though I'm confident nobody's going to blow up the world, it still gives me the willies.
Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog.