Six questions about Trump’s strategy for Afghanistan. No. 1: Is it defendable under just war theory?

President Donald Trump speaks at Fort Myer in Arlington Va., Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, during a Presidential Address to the Nation about a strategy he believes will best position the U.S. to eventually declare victory in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) President Donald Trump speaks at Fort Myer in Arlington Va., Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, during a Presidential Address to the Nation about a strategy he believes will best position the U.S. to eventually declare victory in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

On Monday night, President Trump recommitted the United States to the war in Afghanistan, saying that the U.S. military must “fight to win.” Acknowledging the fatigue many Americans feel after almost 16 years of war in the Middle East and South Asia, Mr. Trump conceded that his own instinct was initially to pull out the troops. As a candidate and private citizen, Donald Trump favored withdrawal, tweeting in 2013 “Let’s get out of Afghanistan.”

After more than a decade of fighting has failed to bring victory and peace, the majority of Americans say the war was a mistake. Young Americans who could soon be deployed may not remember the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Nevertheless, after a months-long strategy review, Mr. Trump is reaffirming and expanding our commitment to the war in Afghanistan. In his speech, Mr. Trump claimed the responsibilities of his office have led him to change his mind. I interviewed Drew Christiansen, S.J., the distinguished professor of ethics and global development at Georgetown University, an expert in just war theory, and former editor in chief of America,for his insights on the latest developments in the United States’ longest war. The questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Is the war in Afghanistan defendable under just war theory?

The war in Afghanistan is defendable under just war theory. Pope John Paul II in 2002 made that clear, that defense against terrorism is part of the state’s right to self-defense. Of course, you have to take into account the suffering the war inflicts and ask: Does our effort, which has gone on for so many years now, begin to be disproportionate and to cause undue suffering? That’s a very hard question to answer.

What are your expectations for the success of President Trump’s new approach?

I think there is not much expectation for drastically different success. We will likely see some modest improvements in the situation. There are just so many terror groups embedded in Afghanistan—you have the Taliban, the Haqqani network and now, of course, ISIS, which we are fighting on multiple fronts. The truth is that the Afghan troops, despite years of training and funding, are still not capable of maintaining or imposing order themselves, and that situation isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Nor is the United States going to occupy the entire country; it simply isn’t willing to. Some people may be sanguine about the prospect of success, but most serious analysts are not.

This is a place that has defeated most invaders; the Russians didn’t win. We’re in a stalemate.

Of course, despite the death and destruction the war there brings, Afghanistan has been a proven base for terror activity. The United States does have a right to self-defense and a right to be worried about the resurgence of many of these terror groups, but for now, it seems we are simply in a holding pattern. Obama and Trump both made this mistake, focusing too much on the killing and not putting enough money and attention into civilian and diplomatic efforts, efforts at development. Obama didn’t emphasize those enough, while Trump appears to be cutting those altogether, which is very bad judgment. Tribal societies are very difficult to pacify and unless we can make progress at that level we are in a military stalemate. This is a place that has defeated most invaders; the Russians didn’t win. We’re in a stalemate.

President Trump directly pledged an end to “nation building.” What do you make of that?

It is very single-minded. The truth is the United States never invested enough in nation building. Trump is exaggerating the mistakes of the past. Obama left most of our development efforts underfunded. The focus on killing will take a toll on Afghan society.

Is Mr. Trump’s approach then trading the safety of Afghan people for our own?

Well, we are not fighting the Afghan people; we are fighting terrorism. Most of the damage on Afghan people has been inflicted by the Taliban. But, of course, a policy of nation building says we are committed to the Afghan people. We have a right to self-defense but also a responsibility to mitigate the greater injustices that might be done otherwise.

We are not fighting the Afghan people; we are fighting terrorism.

What does the difficulty Afghans have experienced coming to the United States, notably the case of the Afghan girls’ robotics team, say about the United States’ goals in the region?

Well, first off, we do have to acknowledge that there is historically a real problem of terrorism being exported through Afghanistan. There is a quite stringent vetting process for anyone traveling from Afghanistan to the United States. Nevertheless, there should always be flexibility in cases like the one you refer to. Those kinds of diplomatic and cultural exchanges and the opportunity for Afghans to travel to the United States could become long-term building blocks for peace—peace through exchange. 

As President Trump alluded to in his address on Afghanistan, the nation is experiencing deep divisions over race and other issues. How does Mr. Trump’s call to unify the country in wartime affect this, and how do Americans who are increasingly against the war respond to this call?

Well this is the underlying problem of a democracy at war. It is hard for the people to stay focused on the war. You simply can’t win this kind of war, a counterinsurgency, on the timescale of election cycles.

In regard to the specific timing, after Charlottesville, yes I think the president was glad to have an opportunity to change the subject, but this decision was due anyway. Afghanistan has been an issue for a long time and the announcement of a decision was due.

The American people are understandably tired of this war that has gone on for so long, longer than any other in our history. But at the same time, most people understand the need to do something about three major groups committed to exporting terror. If you ask the question that way instead of just “should we be there,” I expect you will find the American people more supportive of our commitment. The question a lot of people have is can we win? The war so far has never been wisely handled, and Americans are right to be tired of that. But the approach that we’ve taken, that Trump appears to be augmenting, is wrongheaded. Killing and nothing else is wrongheaded and has no hope of succeeding. Killing to the exclusion of development is doomed to failure; you need to win the Afghan people’s support; you need it to deny hospitality and support to the insurgency.

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Randal Agostini
2 months 4 weeks ago

"But the approach that we’ve taken, that Trump appears to be augmenting, is wrongheaded." There is never a shortage to quarterbacking, especially when there is inherent bias.
Sometimes the easiest way to determine an argument is to approach it from the opposite angle. What would happen if we did nothing? Afghanistan would quickly revert to tribal war and soon become the headquarters of ISIS, from which they would conduct world terrorism - the justification for a Just War. The winner is the side that perseveres.
The Trump strategy seems to be the best solution - the resolution has to come from the Afghans; American and allied power is the only possible means to create the space in time.

rose-ellen caminer
2 months 4 weeks ago

This strategy is deja vu all over again. We are fighting the people of Afghanistan, like we were the people or Iraq and before that the people of Viet Nam. Loosening the rules of engagement is code for killing at least half the people of Afghanistan. It's code for ethnical cleansing of Afghans and it is not conducive to security for anyone in the long run. We did that in Iraq when we ethnically cleansed Baghdad of its Sunni population. We murdered them all and installed a Shia regime with a green light to persecute the Sunnis living outside Baghdad. And its immoral. You want to stop terrorism there? stop killing people there, and in Pakistan for that matter. Yes they are backwards these tribal people, but they have the right to exist. Being backwards does not make them evil, it makes them backwards.
This is not world war two, which we get so nostalgic about [and which the Russians won and we were so grateful to them we gave them half of Europe to subjugate, and a permanent seat on the UN security council;lol], where we were fighting regimes and their militaries, and when the general surrenders ,the troops surrender with him, and that's the end of that. We are fighting not regimes but the people, like Viet Nam, like Iraq and now too Afghanistan for 16years and now it will be our ally Pakistan. The "new" strategy of untying the hand of the military, is gleefully announcing the ethnic cleansing of Afghans. Its atrocious ; we've killed millions over the years, created terrorism that has come back to bite us in the west, caused a refugee crisis, and now its going to be more of the same. We should negotiate with these people, whether Taliban , tribes and or poppy growers [ Duerte is wrong to kill drug dealers but we are right to kill poppy growers?] After 16 years of wars over there with visions of turning the place into a parking lot with a world war two style unconditional surrender, the people are still there. And they fight back. Its not so easy to commit genocide Amerika!

Stanley Kopacz
2 months 4 weeks ago

While we perform neverending gymnastics over the ethical bases for this war, I would suggest we look closer at motivation. Are the terabucks of lithium, rare earths, and more prosaic minerals buried under Afghanistan not a factor? President Tweety Bird gave excuses for changing his "mind" relative to his campaign promises. We know what can really change that venal "mind". $$$$$$$$$$

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