Trump’s Afghanistan foray smacks of desperation, but here’s how it might succeed
It’s not called the "graveyard of empires" for nothing. The British lost two wars there, Alexander the Great couldn’t conquer it and, more recently, the Soviets gave up after a decade of trying to rule it - which, in 1989, gave neocons in the US a delusional moment believing that US intervention itself led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Afghanistan does that to people. It makes them dream and gives them delusional ideas.
One has to ask how a US president, who appears to have achieved absolutely nothing on the foreign policy circuit, can succeed where both Obama and George W Bush failed
Yet many will ponder the wisdom of Donald Trump’s endeavours to aim for “victory” in Afghanistan – a country which most would argue has already defeated the US and is infamous for remaining a mystery to those who have tried in history to put it into some kind of order.
If we can cast aside Trump’s own malevolent approach to policies and principles – it’s just one more U-turn which flies in the face of his own campaign rant - one has to ask how a US president, who appears to have achieved absolutely nothing on the foreign policy circuit, can succeed where both Obama and George W Bush failed?
The legions of foreign editors in places like London, DC and Paris – many of whom have never set foot in the Middle East, let alone Afghanistan – will undoubtedly gush synchronised cynicism about Trump achieving anything in a country which has kept America engaged in a war for 16 years.
They will point out that Afghanistan today is not the one of years back. US troops currently number somewhere between 11,000 and 12,000 compared to Obama’s peak period in 2011 of 100,000. The Taliban has gained more ground and now there is the new threat of the Islamic State (IS) group’s local affiliate whose atrocious tactics are making it harder to negotiate with the Taliban, which is also under pressure to increase the brutality of its attacks.
Some will no doubt argue that corruption in Afghanistan also makes the situation in the country impossible to control. And there is some truth in all of this.
Flawed strategy, punch drunk
But Trump has taken eight months to reach a conclusion which has left many quite aghast. With infelicitous timing, only days after finally being shot of Steve Bannon – his chief polemicist and architect of joined-up thinking in the troubled region who opposed the idea of an Afghanistan campaign – he is ready to go ahead with a military strategy aimed at exhausting the enemy on the battlefield.
Ultimately, people in Afghanistan don’t see the Taliban as an enemy, but more the US as an occupying force which needs to be kept in line – yet one which no one can actually afford to kick out of the country
A crucial victory for his campaign will be to completely secure the capital first though, as a symbolic victory over the Taliban and a boost to fatigued US Republicans who are running out of patience.
But Trump’s erroneous strategy is flawed in many ways. He appears to be grossly deluded that his presence alone will magically empower the US forces who are operating there with a fraction of the men they had before.
In my own view, he is also punch drunk on his relative success in Mosul, Iraq where very low number of US forces, operating far from the gruesome killing fields, proved effective, despite worryingly high numbers of innocent civilians who died from the indiscriminate bombing, aimed at IS fighters scampering from building to building.
Yet low numbers of US forces playing a strategic role in smashing IS in Iraq cannot be replicated in Afghanistan (a country I have worked in as a correspondent for EuroNews). For one, the will of Afghans to overthrow the Taliban is just not there. Most regard the Taliban, at best, as holding a benign ideology which serves as a political alternative in the rural areas where poverty pounds the masses into submission, believing that Kabul has abandoned them.
Also, industrial-scale corruption both at a high level and within the ranks of army and police is off the scale – and is responsible for the US and its allies losing in Afghanistan.
Many new recruits in the police are criminals looking to expand their business with the aid of a uniform and an AK. What I experienced myself in Afghanistan is a wholesale conspiracy by the police and army: their lower ranks go through the motions of what the Americans want simply because Washington runs the payroll in one of the poorest countries in the world.
But ultimately, people in Afghanistan don’t see the Taliban as an enemy, but more the US as an occupying force which needs to be kept in line – yet one which no one can actually afford to kick out of the country.
Such nuances will not permeate Trump’s craven lust for positive media coverage from the battlefield which he considers a theatre of for “killing terrorists”.
Diamonds are forever
As a safeguard, Trump will no doubt try and insist on a new relationship with Ashraf Ghani’s government. We can expect the word "governance" to be uttered by ex Fox-anchors-turned-State-Department spin matrons, all in a distinct bid to make him look different to previous presidents, who were both sucked into the illusion of victory and paid a heavy price.
The problem for Trump is that he can’t be Trump in Afghanistan. There’s just too much at stake for his chaotic, narcissistic style to mess up with an idiotic, late night tweet
Obama wanted US troops out from the very beginning, but it took him years and left the US media confused as to how he could actually be responsible for more drone attacks than his predecessor.
George W was, in fact, planning to bomb the Taliban government even before 9/11 because, according to some reports, they wouldn’t hand over Osama Bin Laden. A former Pakistani foreign minister, however, told reporters that US diplomats – who dispute his account – threatened to attack Afghanistan if the group continued to resist a US gas pipeline project, revealed by Jeremy Scahill in his book Dirty Wars. Trump has his own ideas about tapping into the country’s $3 trillion mineral reserves, as recently reported by CNBC.
But what kind of “victory” could we really expect from Trump in Afghanistan? The problem for Trump is that he can’t be Trump in Afghanistan. There’s just too much at stake for his chaotic, narcissistic style to mess up with an idiotic, late night tweet.
So, the best he will look for in Afghanistan is very small military wins which can be packaged by (American) NATO press officers into hand-out video and media kits to journalists in DC, London and elsewhere.
Yet what will probably be written up as remedial victories by US forces will sadly be packaged as fake news for media outlets in America which are content-hungry and whose call-centre journalists are unlikely to carry out fact checking.
A triumph of irony perhaps. But Trump has done a U-turn on just about everything and will also have to flip flop the mainstream media and capitalise on its fake news productions.
Ironically, fake news, a subject I have written on extensively, could save him and make Afghanistan one area where the American people and dissenting Republicans – who Bannon has warned will leave him in droves - can at least say “we're not winning, but at least we're doing some good in Afghanistan”.
- Martin Jay is a British journalist based in Beirut who recently won the UN’s prestigious Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize (UNCA) in New York in 2016. He works on a freelance basis for a number of respected British newspapers as well as previously Al Jazeera and Deutsche Welle TV. Before Lebanon, he worked in Africa and Europe for CNN, Euronews, CNBC, BBC, Sunday Times and Reuters. @MartinRJay
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: In November 2010, a US soldier of the 502nd Infantry regiment 2nd Batallion Charger company 1st platoon blows up a wall with explosives during a patrol around Ahmed Khan camp near Kandahar city (AFP)