Expert Commentary

Trump Takes Ownership of the War

John McLaughlin
Former Deputy Director, Central Intelligence Agency

President Donald Trump vowed in his first prime time speech that “we will fight to win” in Afghanistan, saying “from now on, victory will have a clear definition.” What that means, he said, is “attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.”

But did Trump really make clear his objective for Afghanistan? The Cipher Brief reached out to former Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin to break down Trump’s approach to Afghanistan, how it diverges from his predecessors’ strategies, and the main result of his speech.

The Cipher Brief: Did U.S. President Donald Trump make clear what his objective is for Afghanistan?

John McLaughlin: The President did not make clear his objective other than “winning.” It’s not clear what his standard is for that other than maybe preventing the Taliban from “taking over.”  This is not much different from his predecessors, and it implies the Taliban would still be there but not running the country. That could mean support for a political agreement giving the Taliban a less than dominant share of governing power — but that is not clear. So the main result is that Trump has taken ownership of the war.

TCB: Is the strategy that President Trump outlined consistent with that objective? Is it achievable with this plan?

McLaughlin: Strategy is just a word unless military power is connected to a clearly articulated political objective that describes a desired end point. This was more an approach than a strategy. It is not markedly different from his predecessors, other than shifting from what he called a “time-based” approach, presumably a reference to the timetables for ramping up and drawing down cited by President Obama.

TCB: He very specifically did not mention an Afghanistan timeline. What are we to draw from that?

McLaughlin: Leaving out a timeline is consistent with Trump’s frequent disdain for giving away clues to policy. Obama made a mistake in his 2009 speech saying we would withdraw around 2011. Good choice by Trump.

TCB: Can you walk us through how you think this strategy or approach diverges from that of the Obama Administration? The president mentioned lifting certain restrictions on warfighters and expanding the authority of wartime commanders – what does that say to you?

McLaughlin: Trump may intend a more direct role for U.S. troops, although he chose not to say. Now they are largely advisors at the corps level. He may be authorizing them to go forward with Afghan forces at the brigade level or lower and to call in airstrikes and artillery on Taliban targets, which they are not permitted to do. The Afghans do need this help but it would mean more U.S. casualties.

TCB: How important is the Pakistan piece of the strategy? Does it deal with the issue of safe havens? Is it achievable?

McLaughlin: It’s important to deny the Taliban and other jihadists sanctuary in Pakistan, something President Trump’s three predecessors were unable to do with consistency. He did not make clear how he will achieve this other than exhortation. It’s difficult to ramp up real pressure on Pakistan because our forces are so dependent logistically on routes through and facilities in Pakistan. Progress on this will be episodic and spotty at best.

TCB: Are there any potential unintended consequences to this strategy?

McLaughlin: Trump did say our patience with Afghanistan is not infinite if it does not get its act together. He has thus left himself an escape route — he could simply pull out if he declares exasperation with Kabul at some point.

TCB: Nearly 16 years later, did you ever expect we would still be having this conversation about Afghanistan?

McLaughlin: No. In a way, we have won earlier in Afghanistan on at least two occasions — after banishing the Taliban and al Qaeda in 2001 and in 2004 -2005 when Afghanistan held its first successful presidential and parliamentary elections. But we did not consolidate our gains and became too distracted with Iraq. So here we are.

The Author is John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is a distinguished practitioner in residence at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.  He served as the Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2000-2004 and Acting Director of the CIA in 2004.

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