How Trump and ‘the tweet of Damocles’ amplify confusion in Afghanistan

By | December 18, 2019

In a two-part column, Christopher Dickey writes:

The Washington Post’s vast investigative report about the delusions and lies of successive American administrations in Afghanistan reads almost like a celebration of superpower humiliation. Drawing on hundreds of internal U.S. government interviews about “lessons learned,” it would reinforce anyone’s belief the best lesson would be to get the fuck out. Like, yesterday already.

Certainly the documents dovetail with U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s promise that he’ll be the one to end this “endless war.” Amb. Ryan Crocker, one of the diplomats quoted extensively in the articles, told me after the series came out, “the Post has just helped [Trump] immensely.” And sure enough, NBC and other media reported Saturday night that Trump is preparing a drawdown of 4,000 more troops, to a level of 8,000 to 9,000 boots on the ground, with the aim of “ending” the war (for Americans) before the 2020 election.

But is complete withdrawal—what the Taliban call a full American “evacuation”— really the best option? In fact, the president has vacillated on that score. His preferred option is negotiation, he says. He even invited Taliban leaders to Maryland for his own historic “Camp David accords” just before the anniversary of 9/11, then rescinded the invite and canceled talks amid an uproar.

On Trump’s surprise Thanksgiving visit to U.S. troops at Afghanistan’s Bagram Airfield, he announced talks with the Taliban would resume. “We’re going to stay until such time as we have a deal [with the Taliban], or we have total victory.”

To achieve that second option, he’s hinted at nukes: “If I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the earth, it would be gone, it would be over literally in 10 days,” he proclaimed in July, then said, “I don’t want to go that route.” In September, he returned to the same theme: “If we wanted to do a certain method of war, we would win that very quickly, but many, many, really, tens of millions of people would be killed, and we think it’s unnecessary.”

So, what is the madman’s plan?

Trump being Trump, he has left the Pentagon, the commanders in the field, and the Afghan government wondering when he will pick up his cell phone, punch in a declaration like the one that betrayed U.S. Kurdish allies in Syria, and let the blade fall that cuts all U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. As counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen puts it, they all “sit under the tweet of Damocles.” Even if he then tries to reverse course, as he did with the Kurds, Trump will just amplify confusion, and that is the last thing Afghan policy needs. [Continue reading…]

In part-two, Dickey writes:

Unless President Donald Trump decides to end the Afghan war with a bang—with “tens of millions” killed, as he has threatened more than once—it is going to end with a whimper, if it ends at all.

“It’s not victory,” says counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen. “It isn’t ticker-tape and Broadway.”

It should be said that what Kilcullen and others consider the best option looks like the one Trump is pursuing just now: a reduction of U.S. forces on the ground to an easily sustainable level of about 9,000, while negotiating to get the Taliban into direct talks, eventually, with the U.S.-backed Afghan government. But after 18 years of a war that has cost $2 trillion and the lives of more than 2,400 U.S. soldiers, such an inconclusive conclusion may not satisfy even an exhausted American public—much less the egotistical Mr. Trump. [Continue reading…]

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