In a major speech on Monday night at Fort Myer, in Virginia, Donald Trump performed a U-turn on his electoral promise to pull troops out of Afghanistan and cut military spending in what has become the US’s longest war.
Given Trump’s 2013 tweets about getting out of Afghanistan and cutting wasteful military spending there, his decision now to raise troop levels (without specifying by how much – there are currently 8,500 US service members in the region) indicates a neutering of his presidency. This was hinted at last week by Steve Bannon, who abruptly departed his job as White House chief strategist just days before the speech and who – like Trump during his campaign – had long advocated a non-interventionist approach. Bannon said, rather ominously, that the presidency, as voted for by the majority of Americans, was now “over”.
The speech, which marked the end of a month-long review “of all strategic options in Afghanistan and south Asia” by General James Mattis and the national security team, was a clear victory for the military-industrial complex and the generals. The script could have been written by the generals themselves, and heralds a period of escalation and never-ending war (there will no longer be emphasis on meeting temporal objectives, but instead on vague “conditions” being fulfilled). In particular, “Mad Dog” Mattis, infamous for laying waste to Falluja in 2004 (complete with the use of banned weapons and depleted uranium, which still causes birth defects to children born there) has now been told that “the gloves are off” in the Afghan war.
For as well as raising troop levels Trump’s speech clarified that he has now given his generals the green light to conduct operations in any way they see fit, without “micromanagement from Washington”. This approach is ominous for the Afghan people, and will inevitably lead to further increases in civilian casualties. According to a report by the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan, deaths of Afghan women and children in the conflict, which had been falling, began to increase again in the first six months of 2017.
Other remarks made by Trump revealed contradictions between US policy in Afghanistan and what is happening on the ground. This included inconsistency over Saudi Arabia, a key sponsor of jihadist terror groups, which Trump called a “partner”, and Pakistan, which Trump demonised for acting as a “safe haven” for US-designated terror organisations. Today, Islamic State in Afghanistan drive around in Japanese jeeps apparently the same as those issued to the Taliban by the Saudis prior to 11 September 2001, when I was based in Kandahar, working for the UN.
In comments likely to infuriate Afghans, Trump also talked of the need for them to “take ownership” of the future direction of their country (for anyone who has seen the vast military apparatus, watchtowers and “green zone” of occupied Kabul, these comments are blatantly absurd). He added disingenuously that “we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over.” Given what unfolded in Afghanistan from the days immediately after the 11 September 2001 attacks onwards, in my view these comments are a complete mischaracterisation of what the US went into the country, using the pretext of the attacks, to do.
He also talked of the need for the US to tackle criminality and corruption in Afghanistan despite the fact that from the outset the US allied itself with unindicted warlords who have since presided over the growth of the opium trade (now affecting US citizens to an unprecedented degree), and the trafficking of women, children and artefacts. They also created illegal armed groups that roam the countryside, contributing to the security problem. When Trump said that the US was not interested in nation-building, but solely in “killing terrorists”, he sounded as Manichaean as George Bush. I wonder if this script will pass muster with the American people – because Afghans are long since jaded by it.
Interestingly, Trump failed to mention the increasingly significant Silk Road project, which is championed by China and other Central Asian countries as a motor for economic development. The project would bring a vast peace dividend to the region. If he really wants peace in Afghanistan, Trump and the other Nato countries he is pressuring to put more into vast military budgets to fight endless expensive and tragic wars would do well to follow China’s lead.
When I was in Kabul in 2013 as a political adviser to the EU ambassador, an Afghan commander I knew from Wardak province, a veteran of the war against the USSR, told me that the Americans were transporting “terrorists” to his region from Pakistan. Clearly, Afghans believe that the Americans have long been backing both sides in this, the US’s longest war. Trump’s speech, which invoked children, the September 11 attacks and terror in Europe as justification for a continued war in Afghanistan, will do little to change their minds.
• Lucy Morgan Edwards is author of The Afghan Solution: The inside story of Abdul Haq, the CIA and how western hubris lost Afghanistan