Evaluating Trump’s Afghanistan Plan

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Donald Trump tweeted in 2013, let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train, and we waste billions there – nonsense. This week, President Trump announced what he called a new strategy. But it includes sending a few thousand more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, increasing U.S. Special Forces missions and no fixed goal for withdrawal from a country where the U.S. has had combat troops for 16 years. Max Boot, historian and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, joins us. Mr. Boot, thanks for being with us.

MAX BOOT: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: You’ve been highly critical President Trump. But what do you think of this policy?

BOOT: Well, I think it’s probably a reasonable thing to do. I mean, it’s not a policy that thrills anybody. And it doesn’t hold out the prospect of any immediate victory. It’s basically a recipe for long-term engagement. But it’s hard to think of what the alternative is because the only other alternatives are – A, we can withdraw or, B, we can send a heck of a lot more U.S. troops. But neither option seems terribly attractive. And so I think President Trump basically chose the status quo option, which again is not sexy or exciting. But it seems like a reasonable thing to do given the level of threat that we would face in Afghanistan if the Taliban and assorted other Islamist groups were to take over.

SIMON: And what threat is that? Because 9/11 is a number of years ago at this point. What would happen if the U.S. withdrew?

BOOT: Well, as the president mentioned in his speech, I mean, there are something in the neighborhood of 14 to 20 internationally designated terrorist groups that are operating in the area of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of course, there’s Islamic State, which is there. There’s the Taliban. There’s al-Qaida. There’s the Haqqani network. There’s a whole bunch of others. And what we’ve seen pretty consistently is that if we allow these groups that have ungoverned space, bad things happen.

We saw that in Afghanistan in the 1990s when the Taliban took over. We’ve seen it more recently in the last few years when ISIS took over a significant chunk of Syria and Iraq. That’s not something that we can live with, I think, in terms of U.S. national security, especially when those groups would be destabilizing also Pakistan, which is a nuclear armed state.

So I think the way – one way you can look at what we’re doing there now with approximately 10,000 troops there now and – a number that will go up probably to 15,000 or so after the increase that President Trump has ordered. What we’re doing, in a sense, is kind of buying insurance against the very worst thing imaginable happening, which is, once again, having an Islamic state in the middle of the Middle East. But we’re not willing to do what it takes to actually defeat the Taliban, which would be a much more ambitious undertaking.

SIMON: Well, you used that phrase – I believe it was ungoverned space. What about the idea that if the West has learned nothing else over a century in Afghanistan, it’s that the country might be ungovernable, at least the way we understand it by, you know, the measures of Western democracy. I mean, there – U.S. troops in Afghanistan have been there so long. Some of them being sent now reportedly are the sons and daughters of U.S. service members who were there initially.

BOOT: That – no, that’s all true. But I would counsel against the notion that, you know, Afghanistan is doomed to perpetual warfare because remember, prior to 1979 and the Russian invasion, Afghanistan was actually a peaceful place. I mean, it was still very poor, still very decentralized. But it wasn’t rocked by this constant warfare, which we see there now. And I don’t think we can just stand back and say, this is hopeless, and allow these extremist groups to take over. It is very, very difficult. But we’re making a – I think, what is a fairly low-level commitment – one that doesn’t mercifully produce too many U.S. casualties and keeps our military footprint relatively low. And I think that’s – again, that’s better than the alternatives, which is kind of just to throw up our hands in despair or some of the other options that Trump looked like turning the war over to mercenaries and contractors, which I don’t think would be a good idea either.

SIMON: In the half a minute we have left, you’ve been so critical of President Trump. Do you give him some credit for, in a sense, breaking a very explicit campaign promise once he becomes president.

BOOT: I do. I mean, I do give him some credit. I mean, I think he’s been a terrible, terrible president – one of the very worst we’ve ever had. But in this particular case, I have to give him some credit for basically allowing himself to have his arm twisted by his military and national security advisers who convinced him that his instincts were wrong. Now, the issue is whether he will stick with his current decision because as we’ve seen consistently with Trump, he changes his mind all the time and finds himself on both sides of the issue. But if he sticks with this resolve, I think that is probably the best decision he could have made regarding Afghanistan.

SIMON: Max Boot, thanks so much for being with us.

BOOT: Thanks for having me.

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