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The Long, Long Story: “Principled Realism”, Trump and Afghanistan

The story continues with dispiriting relentlessness. The remark by Samuel Beckett in The Unnamable comes to mind: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” With the sense of incapacity about going on, yet doing so with a drone’s dedicated commitment, President Donald Trump did what US Presidents have done since George W. Bush: commit. Commit, that is, to the mission; commit more promises; and commit more thoughts to blotted paper about the war that never ends in the graveyard of empires.

Addressing the nation from Fort Myer military base in Arlington, Virginia, Trump conceded to weariness – weary, that is, of not achieving victory in Afghanistan. “I share that American people’s frustration.”

Another frustration were those failed efforts at nation building: “too much time, energy, money – and most importantly lives – trying to rebuild countries in our own image instead of pursuing our security interests about all other considerations.”

Trump’s none-too-intense scouring of the Afghan problem suggested three conclusions. The first was seeking to honour the US fallen. “The men and women who serve nation in combat deserve a plan for victory.”

The second effectively hooked an indefinite US commitment to the region: “the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable.” More terrorist havens, he feared, would mushroom; more vacuums for instability, he warned, could result.

The third far from earth shattering conclusion: “the security threats we face in Afghanistan, and the broader region, are immense.” The region had been positively fecund in producing and harbouring some 20 US-deemed terrorist groups. “The highest concentration in any region, anywhere in the world.” (A big tut tut to Pakistan was uttered).

These conclusions would entail a shift. Time as a measure of achievement would be ditched. Conditions would form the necessary criteria. Dates for commencing or ending “military options” would be abandoned. No timetables, no schedules, just ground conditions that “will guide our strategy from now on.” Rather neatly, Trump was suggesting a timeless deployment of US forces – for where time has ceased as a measure, there can only be conditions to assess.

The president also gave us a sprinkling of hoary old chestnuts. The government in Kabul would continue to receive support to combat the Taliban, but the issue of Afghan governance remained one for Afghans. “We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society.”

US nation-building enterprises have generally floundered, and here was a president admitting to it. But that element of candour was followed by another ghoulish admission. Not only should the US shed such efforts at failed reconstruction, it should just admit to doing one thing: “We are killing terrorists.”

To do so, Trump promised to untether the US war machine, lifting those encumbering restrictions placed upon the use of fighter aircraft in targeting various networks. “Micromanagement from Washington, D.C., does not win battles.” Into the bin you go, international humanitarian law!

Other more idiosyncratic pointers were made, linked to a broadening of the South Asia strategy: India needed to muck in more to stabilise the situation, given its “billions of dollars in trade with the United States”. Pakistan, historically closer to US interests, was irritatingly problematic, receiving “billions and billions of dollars” while “housing the very terrorists that we are fighting.” That schizophrenic state of affairs would have to “change immediately.”

A vital problem here is one of aims, as muddled as they seem to be. What, for instance, would ever elusive victory look like? Taken from its elementary point in 2001-2, US strategists were hoping to eliminate a base for al-Qaeda (a “haven” for terrorists) while ensconcing a half-representative government in Kabul. It has succeeded in neither, botching the latter while failing to eliminate the Taliban.

Kabul remains in control of only some of the country, and it is a hold that is tenuous at best. The Taliban continue being enthusiastically aggressive, keeping the countryside dangerous for government soldiers. It now controls 15 per cent more territory than it did in 2015, despite those “surging” efforts pursued by General David Petraeus in 2010-2011.

Such a state of affairs, rather than dampening enthusiasm among the military classes, enthuses them to commit more troops. Never mind that such a deployment would be to thicken and deepen a stalemate, a near mediaeval, unchanging status quo.

The current US commanding general in Afghanistan, John “Mick” Nicholson Jr., suggested to the Senate Armed Services Committee an increased fare of several thousand US troops. Their role would be primarily to engage in “hold-fight-disrupt” operations.

But Trump has his vision, and it is free of complicating numbers, law of war constraints and reconstruction agendas. Go in, maraud and exterminate, and be frank about such aims too. Give the necessary succour to the Afghan authorities, but only in so far as there are results. Such is the way of what he terms “principled realism”.

Finally victory could be given form, its elusive quality overcome. “From now on victory will have a clear definition: Attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terrorist attacks against America before they emerge.” A truly violent, bull in the china shop definition, and an old, if slightly scoured one that will keep US boots in Afghanistan for a generation.

Dr Binoy Kampmark is a senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. He was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He is a contributing editor to CounterPunch and can be followed on Twitter at @bkampmark.


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  1. diannaart

    Sometimes, when listening to Trump (which I admit I don’t do very often), the cadence and working of his speeches sound more like a personal talk to himself, to keep himself in the picture as much as to his audience.

    For example the use of clichés and/or rhetoric easy for him to to speak and remember. Such as playing the victim (again) “When I became president, I was given a bad and very complex hand.” – poor diddums, no one in history has been so hard done by as Trump, blah, blah, blah.

    The predictable propaganda “Not far from where we are gathered tonight, hundreds of thousands of America’s greatest patriots lay in eternal rest at Arlington National Cemetery. There is more courage, sacrifice, and love in those hallowed grounds than in any other spot on the face of the Earth.” Really?

    Notwithstanding his demands to other nations to “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. We are confident they will. Since taking office I have made clear that our allies and partners must contribute much more money to our collective defense.” Trump continues to bang home the message it is all about the USA/Trump and nothing else. Well, its really mostly about Trump.

  2. Harquebus

    The war on terror and on drugs are not meant to be won. They are mechanisms to feed the industrial warrior machine and to provide the excuses needed to continually erode our liberties and steal our wealth.

    Something I read yesterday.

    “After more than 15 years of US troops presence in Afghanistan, President Donald Trump unveiled on Monday a new strategy for the country and cleared the way to send thousands more US troops there.”

    “The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be contiguous. Hierarchial society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance… The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects and its object is not the victory over Eurasia or East Asia but, to keep the very structure of society intact.” — George Orwell

  3. Sean Stinson

    This is a brilliant descriptive analysis, really well written, and deserves a better response than the same familiar parochialism – Trump is crude, unpolished, Trump is this, Trump is that… blahblahblah.

    As I wrote in my piece yesterday – Trump is now effectively neutered. with Bannon out of the way any hope of military restraint is now off the table. Be ready for shock troops in Ukraine and fresh attacks on Syria – one only has to look at the usual propaganda channels. North Korea now sending chemical weapons to Syria? Seriously??? get outta here.

    after a 6 month stay of execution the war party is now back in business.

    The US permanent occupation of Afghanistan should be seen in a in its broader historical context. Afghanistan’s opium goes into more than 90% of heroin worldwide. Afghanistan is sitting on trillions of dollars worth of rare earth minerals. Once again, blahblahblahblahblah, whatever.

    What were the British doing there in 1837-42 that was worth losing 4500 soldiers over?

    Afghanistan has historically been empire’s pivot to Asia, going back centuries. It’s how the old British Empire colonised India and China, and how the current empire (actually still the same old empire, but lets not get into that) plans to re-colonise China, or at least obstruct it’s belt and road initiative and prevent Eurasian integration. It also provides access to Russia’s underbelly. Need to look at India as a long term imperial project as well – on its current trajectory it will probably overtake China as the factory floor of Asia within the next 30 years.

    It looks increasingly like China, Iran and Pakistan will now have to cooperate with the Taliban in order to liberate Afghanistan from US occupation. In other words, we are basically back where the we started 37 years ago, just a slightly different iteration of the same game.

  4. Roswell

    Gotta agree with you, Sean.

    I never trusted any country’s ‘official reason’ to invade Afghanistan, be it Russia or the USA.

    Found it odd that Bush Jnr sent the troops into Afghanistan shortly after 9/11 to ‘get’ a Saudi Arabian who they financed during the Russian invasion. What the Taliban had to do with 9/11 I’ll never know.

    But Trump is still hopeless, by the way.

  5. Sean Stinson

    lolol. You don’t get to be POTUS by accident. Trump is an ACTOR. Remember Reagan? He was also actor, but classier. Trump is more of a cartoon character. If anything it shows what the US has devolved to in 30 years.

    Think about it. Reality TV show host. Perfect for the job!

    I guess there are people who think pro wrestling is real too…

  6. Roswell

    I obviously said something wrong. I’d like to know what it is.

  7. Sean Stinson

    geez i thought I was the one with the sensitive skin! lol.

    nah, you said nothing wrong at all.

  8. diannaart

    Yes, Trump is an actor (salesman) and, yes, Regan was an actor (movie) – they are/were both crap presidents bringing some of the worst aspects of American culture to the fore where it remains festering.

    But Pro-wrestling? That is real, man, no dissing the pro-wrestling, takes years of training to achieve such awesome-osity:


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