Now that Trump has unceremoniously disposed of many who brought him to the White House, most recently senior adviser Steve Bannon, he has set his sights on a long-term legacy. For what will he be known? With which wing of the Republican Party will he ally? His campaign platform was often contradictory: Despite pledging to “rebuild America’s military,” which meant a whopping 10 percent boost in defense spending, Trump also declared that America would no longer embroil itself in foreign wars. This contradiction placed the former real estate tycoon on a fence between the Populists and the Hawks.
In a decision that will trouble many Populists, who want the President to focus on domestic affairs and the economy, Donald Trump has elected to increase U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. The commander-in-chief seems poised to send a “few thousand” more troops to the beleaguered nation, which currently holds 8,400 U.S. soldiers. Having been home to American fighting forces for sixteen years, since shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Afghanistan now holds the distinction as our nation’s longest armed conflict.
Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy insists that the U.S. military will “fight to win,” and that no longer will the government provide timetables for success or release troop levels to the public. Allegedly, previous openness about American goals and resources in Afghanistan gave the Taliban and other extremist groups an incentive to hold out, believing that they could retake the war-torn country if they could “run out the clock.” The President has also vowed to free up the military to engage enemies more aggressively, giving ground commanders more control and discretion.
Although some of Trump’s reasoning seems sound, redoubling U.S. efforts in Afghanistan does not seem likely to foster long-term success. Sadly, we’ve watched this episode before. Afghanistan was known as the “Soviet Union’s Vietnam” during the 1980s, a name earned through its alarming similarity to our own war in Vietnam during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In Vietnam, we learned that increasing your body count doesn’t mean much. By 1969, at the war’s peak, we packed South Vietnam with some 500,000 U.S. troops… and still lost in the end. Ho Chi Minh famously said that he could lose ten men for every soldier lost by the United States, and he would still win. In the end, the North Vietnamese leader was proven correct. In fact, he lost closer to twenty-to-one, with North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces suffering 1.1 million killed between 1954 and 1975, compared to 58,000 U.S. soldiers lost.
If Donald Trump is increasing U.S. involvement in Afghanistan simply because he hates the idea of losing, he will be in for a tragic and brutal surprise. Manpower and funding alone cannot win long-term conflicts against determined and well-supported enemies. This lesson comes not only from Vietnam, but all the way back to our nation’s earliest conflicts, including the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Despite the overwhelming British advantage in training and equipment, determined local fighters won out. During the Revolutionary War, an American victory was only possible through the aid of foreign powers, such as France and Spain.
In Afghanistan, unfortunately, the U.S. has been continually stymied by the efforts of Pakistan, which has aided the Taliban and other extremists. Increasing the number of U.S. troops will mean little if Afghan enemies can still cross the border into Pakistan to rest and refit. The U.S. faced this dilemma in both Vietnam and Korea. In Afghanistan, as ultimately happened during the Korean War, a much wider and bloodier war is a possibility if U.S. forces try to pursue a defeated foe too closely to the border of that foe’s more powerful ally. Is Trump willing to risk an armed conflict with Pakistan in order to break the Taliban and Al-Qaeda?
Even Trump’s allies are displeased with the President’s decision to side with defense hawks on Afghanistan, criticizing his approach as similar to those of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. After the dismal decade in Iraq, American voters had had enough of the insurgency and unending attacks. While Afghanistan has yet to be viewed as negatively as Iraq, largely due to the fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda viewed as being worthwhile, feelings might change if heavy fighting in Afghanistan begins anew and American casualties mount. If Trump is hoping for a second term, he should know that a renewed war in Afghanistan is not likely to get him there. Just ask Lyndon Johnson.