For some time it has been clear that the White House of President Donald Trump was convulsed with a struggle among various court factions vying for the Emperor’s ear. Crudely oversimplified, these are variously described as:
1. The military «Junta» (Generals McMaster, National Security Council; Mattis, Pentagon; and Kelly, White House Chief of Staff;
2. The Goldman-Sachs «Globalists» (preeminently First Daughter Ivanka and First Son-in-Law Jared Kushner);
3. The «Populist-Nationalists» («the two Steves» Bannon and Miller); and
4. The Regular Republicans who, to their credit, in 2016 chose to join the Trump populist movement over more conventionally «conservative» GOP candidates (Former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway).
It is understood that the first two factions were generally allied against the second two. Following Priebus’s ouster, the bellwether would be who got tossed out next: Bannon or McMaster. It was Bannon.
On August 18, with Bannon’s defenestration, it became clear that the Junta and the Globalists were firmly in charge. The only outliers left – besides somebody named Trump – are Conway and Miller. We’ll see how long they last. Any of them.
The immediate impact of the Junta/Globalist victory in the internal struggle was renewed sharp rhetoric against North Korea (Bannon’s suggestion the there was no acceptable military option may have been one proximate cause of his ejection) and, even more so, Trump’s speech on Afghanistan on August 21 in front of a military audience.
Before addressing the specifics, it’s important to note that his remarks not only signaled a humiliating defeat of Trumpism within Trump’s own administration but reflected the damage done by the vicious attacks he has suffered for speaking the truth about events in Charlottesville. His offense: to affirm that responsibility for violence lay not only with the «white nationalists» but also with the armed Antifa «protesters» bent on attacking them. In fact, to anyone with a fair mind watching the TV coverage, it was clear that the violence overwhelmingly came from the latter, abetted by the evidently deliberate decision of Virginia Governor and likely 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Terry McAuliffe to withdraw police separation of the two sides and herd the nationalists up against Antifa.
While not mentioning Charlottesville by name, the entire beginning section of Trump’s Afghanistan speech – his first prime time televised address to the nation as president – stuck to a politically correct script, ritually intoning that «there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate.» (In yet another zigzag, the very next night, at a rally with cheering supporters in Phoenix, Trump read back aloud his previous comments on Charlottesville and denounced Antifa. The media, notably CNN, dissolved in a deranged fit of rage.)
As to what he now plans for Afghanistan:
It’s not new, it’s same-old same-old: Aside from a few Trumpish rhetorical flourishes, it was a speech that could have been given by President Hillary Clinton or President Jeb Bush. In substance, it was a rehash of the failures of Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Only a few details changed. He will loosen rules of engagement for U.S. forces, which among other things will mean more dead Afghans and more Taliban recruits. He will boost troop numbers but won’t tell the enemy – or the American people – by how many; the number 4,000 has been kicked around, but who knows. Finally, no timetables will «guide our strategy», just «conditions on the ground», but what those conditions need to be for us to finally get out are not described either. Nor is there any clue as to how boosting American numbers to about 13,000 will accomplish what 100,000 couldn’t.
«We will ask our NATO allies and global partners to support our new strategy with additional troop and funding increases in line with our own», said the President. «We are confident they will.» Pure fantasy. On the other hand, Trump completely ignored Afghanistan’s record opium production. Evidently promising to stamp that out would be just too fantastical.
It’s not a strategy, it’s just a policy: One of the problems with being entirely guided by military men is their tendency to focus on their tactical tradecraft. Hopefully that’s something they’re good at. But their knowledge and skill, though vitally important, doesn’t of itself constitute a strategy. Or put another way, professional military men can tell a policymaker how to accomplish what he wants, but they can’t tell him what he wants. The result is a policy composed of various tactics that don’t add up to much of anything except more of what we’ve seen since 2001.
We will not engage in nation-building, said Trump, or tell Afghans how to live. This could mean no more nagging them over laws mandating the killing of apostates or about women’s rights. («Don’t throw acid in the face of little girls because they attend school. That’s not nice.») We weren’t doing much of that anyway, but now it’s official: Americans are fighting to make Afghanistan safe for Sharia. (Paradoxically, Trump was reportedly convinced that Afghanistan is not doomed to be a Hobbesian abode of savages by McMaster’s showing him a picture of mini-skirted Afghan female students from the 1970s. As Justin Raimondo points out, the good general surely neglected to mention the reason there are no more mini-skirts to be seen is because of our support, with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, for Osama bin Laden and his ilk. Mission accomplished!)
On the other hand, is it telling Afghans how to live when Trump promised to root out corruption? (What Americans are calling corruption is what in Afghanistan is usually just called «life.») Indeed, very little was said about what the Afghan government thinks about the «new» plan. But then again, we barely care what Seoul thinks about deploying the THAAD system in South Korea, so why should we ask the opinions of an Afghan government that wouldn’t last a week without American support? One is reminded of the Soviet-era quip that Afghanistan was the most peace-loving country in the world. Why? Because it doesn’t even interfere in its own internal affairs.
Regionally, Trump vowed to force Pakistan to stop providing safe haven for the Taliban (sure, that will work) and to get India more involved. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that in addition to «putting the pressure on Pakistan» Washington would «put the pressure on India that they have to be part of the political solution.» Just like we «pressure» North Korea, or «pressure» China on Korea and the South China Sea, and «pressure» Russia on Syria, Ukraine, what have you. Pressure, pressure, pressure! Doesn’t anyone in Washington know how to talk with anyone to seek common interests? Why no mention of the three regional powers – Russia, China, and Iran – that like India (but unlike Pakistan) don’t want an Afghanistan ruled by Salafists? Now that could be a strategy.
It’s not Trump’s policy, it’s the Swamp’s: Trump pretty much let the cat out of the bag when he conceded that his first impulse was to get out of Afghanistan. (Interestingly the reflexively pro-war Washington Post and National Review published calls for the U.S. to withdraw our forces, saying Trump’s earlier instinct was right! Be prepared for them to rip out his liver when things turn out badly.) But then Trump talked with the big boys with the short haircuts who explained the facts of life to him. He seems to have bought the Swamp’s line that because Obama «hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq» the result was ISIS. Nonsense. ISIS came into being because (a) we invaded Iraq in the first place and (b) for years Obama armed terrorists seeking to overthrow the government of Syria, continuing a policy in place since the 1980s Afghanistan war against the USSR. Given such assumptions, the most optimistic hope is for a «surge» like that in Iraq in 2007, which at least superficially stabilized Anbar province and Baghdad. Again, very optimistically, that could provide cover for us to withdraw our forces. More likely, given the fear of «hastily and mistakenly» withdrawing Obama-style, we will stay for an indefinite period amounting to a permanent occupation. After all, look how long we’ve been successfully stabilizing Germany, Japan, and South Korea!
The sad fact is that Trump almost certainly knows all this, at least on a gut level. What exactly the exact political alchemy is that has led him to this juncture is open for speculation. But what is not speculative is the grim fact that whether or not this is Trump’s policy, Afghanistan is now Trump’s war.