In a speech delivered Monday night at Fort Myer military base in Arlington, Virginia, U.S. President Donald Trump outlined his administration’s Afghanistan strategy. The President reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to ensuring that Afghanistan does not devolve back into a terrorist safe haven and pledged to maintain a U.S. military presence in the country. The Cipher Brief spoke with CIA Acting Director Michael Morell about President Trump’s Afghanistan strategy and if his approach could lead to a positive outcome to the longest war in U.S. history.
The Cipher Brief: What is your initial reaction to President Trump’s speech on his Afghanistan policy?
Michael Morell: Let me start by saying that the President, in his opening comments last night, backtracked from his horrible words of the last week on Charlottesville. He powerfully, I thought, used the example of the military, which has been able to overcome many of the divisions that afflict our society, to call on all of us to heal those divisions. And, he tried to inspire us to do so by pointing out the sacrifices our soldiers make for the country and arguing that we owe them unity here at home in return. He said the right things. He actually sounded presidential.
On Afghanistan, the President made two things very clear. First, he outlined, with great clarity, the threat we face from the situation in Afghanistan and the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal. On the threat, his analysis was exactly right. The Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since just after 9/11, and al Qaeda and ISIS are the rise. And, consequently, the terrorist threat posed to the U.S. is on the rise.
On the potential consequences of a withdrawal, he was also right. I believe that the within a few months of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban would be knocking on the doors of Kabul. They would take over the country, and they would again give safe haven to jihadist groups intent on attacking us. He made the case for a U.S. military commitment to the country.
TCB: Did President Trump make clear what his objective is for Afghanistan?
Morell: President Trump was very clear on the objective of his policy – to prevent terrorist groups from having safe havens in Afghanistan from which to attack us. He also made clear what the objective is not – it is not to nation build, it is not to pursue trying to make Afghanistan look like us. I could not agree more.
TCB: Is the President’s strategy consistent with that objective? Is it achievable with this plan?
Morell: With regard to the President’s approach to delivering on this objective, I did not hear a new strategy. Most of what I heard was exactly what the Bush and Obama Administrations did and/or tried – integrate all aspects of national power, pressure Pakistan to change its support to the Taliban, tighten the financial squeeze on terrorist groups, ask for more from NATO, train Afghan security forces, and encourage the Afghan government to get its act together. The President said these were changes. That is not accurate. This is more of the same. And, the President gave me no reason to be confident that these approaches would be any more successful under him than they were under his predecessors.
TCB: Can you walk us through how you think this strategy 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?
Morell: I did hear three new pieces to the strategy. First, no timetable for departure, rather a conditions-based departure. That makes sense. Two, no micromanagement from Washington in the conduct of military operations. That makes sense as well. But, while these may make sense, they will not be determinative. They will not turn the tide. The third new piece is asking India to do more in Afghanistan. That, most definitely, does not make sense. In fact, it is just the wrong thing to do. Indian involvement in Afghanistan is one of the key reasons why the Pakistanis support the Taliban. So, more Indian involvement as actually destabilizing.
TCB: What is your main takeaway from the speech?
Morell: The bottom line for me? I heard a strategy that would prevent us from losing Afghanistan to the Taliban and the jihadists, but I did not hear a strategy that will defeat them either. Because of the President’s policy, the threat to the U.S. of a terrorist attack emanating from Afghanistan will not go sky high, as it would if we withdrew, but it will not be eliminated either.
The last point to make is that the President deserves credit for ending up in a different place from where he started. Coming into the policy process, he saw withdrawal as the answer. Coming out, he was in a different place. This is a good sign.