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Analysis

Donald Trump will own the Afghan war in victory, his generals will in defeat

In the first major policy address on Afghanistan during his presidency Donald Trump said that he was ready to send more US troops to the country. Here are five takeaways from President Trump's speech.

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Trump announces new Afghan strategy

Reversal of earlier stance on Afghanistan

The most significant aspect of  President Trump's speech on Afghanistan was that it marked a U-turn in the president's thinking on the US involvement in the war in Afghanistan. At the outset of his remarks Trump said that he usually trusts his instincts, and that his instinct on Afghanistan was to get out.

But then he appealed to credibility, saying that "once he became president and studied the issues more carefully with the generals he began to think differently," according to Jennifer Mercieca, a presidential rhetoric scholar at Texas A&M University. "Usually we trust speakers who we believe are knowledgeable and have good intentions - Trump made appeals to both."

Donald Trump speaks at Fort Myer

Trump said he wouldn't offer specifics on Afghan plans, so as to keep the Taliban in the dark

In the past Trump had repeatedly criticized the US war effort in Afghanistan. He had called for an end to US involvement there and for Washington to focus on rebuilding at home instead.

Now, by not just reversing his decision to withdraw from the country, but by signing off on an unspecified increase of troops to try to pacify it, President Trump has put his personal imprint on the 16-year war effort. Currently, there are more than 8,000 US troops deployed in Afghanistan.  

Read more:  Afghanistan waiting for new US strategy under Trump

Tough rhetoric, few specifics

"For a major policy address, the speech was painfully short of any real specifics about American strategy or end goals in Afghanistan," said Jason Lyall, a political scientist at Yale University with a focus on Afghanistan who also serves as director of Yale's Political Violence Fieldlab. "We never received any clear criteria for 'success,' nor a sense of what was new in this approach that hasn't been tried before. In that regard, I thought the speech was quite poor."

Afghanistan Abzug US-Truppen Zeremonie (picture alliance/ZUMA Press)

Trump is the third president to seek to wind down the Afghan war via a troop surge

While Trump's remarks lacked tangible measures or figures such as troop levels, he did pepper his speech with tough-sounding rhetoric, saying that the US would now "fight to win," and calling terrorists "thugs" and "losers." But beyond those words and the promise to give commanders on the ground more freedom to make decisions on the spot and go after the enemy, the speech did not offer specifics on the precise path to victory.

For Mercieca, the Trump speech sounded at times almost Obama-esque - with one key difference: "Where he differed is in his claim that the US will no longer dictate the terms of our help - he essentially announced the end of the Wilson Doctrine that we would engage in war to help spread democracy and capitalism."  

Read more:  Resurgent Taliban and a government in disarray

Greater role for Pakistan and India, no mention of Russia and Iran

President Trump's Afghanistan strategy foresees an expanded role for both Pakistan and India. But while the president simply asked India to provide economic assistance, Pakistan received much harsher treatment. Trump did call Pakistan a partner of the US in his remarks, but he also accused the country of harboring people who want to kill Americans and said that this would have to stop immediately or the US would have to act militarily.

US soldiers in Afghanistan

Nominally, the US troops remaining in Afghanistan focus on training and supporting domestic forces

Read more:  'Trump administration has zero patience for Pakistan's terror policy'

But beyond those rather general demands vis-à-vis India, and beyond the general threats against Pakistan, Trump's remarks again lacked details of what this would practically mean for the two countries.   

While Trump focused on India and Pakistan, "there was no mention at all of the growing roles played by Russia and Iran in Afghanistan and, in particular, in supporting the Taliban," said Yale's Lyall. "The war has changed considerably in the past several years; it has widened geographically to bring in other powers besides Pakistan. I don't think the speech reflected this new reality.”

Read more:  Afghanistan: sent back to a war zone

Trump as presidential orator

Considering that Trump tends to shy away from deliberative policy addresses and prefers to be speaking off-the cuff at political campaign rallies (like the one scheduled on Tuesday in Arizona) rather than at official events, "I think this went well for him," said Texas A&M's Mercieca. He read his script from the teleprompter with little embellishment and did not deviate.

Defense Minister Mattis in Afghanistan

Trump said that leaving Afghanistan would put President Ashraf Ghani's government in serious danger

"The opening section of the speech made similar claims about American servicemen as Lincoln did at Gettysburg, he appealed to national values like democracy and freedom, and asked Americans to love and trust one another - appealing to national transcendent values," said Mercieca. "He needed to do that, he should have done that last week," she said, in reference to the far-right protests and violence in Charlottesville. 

Mercieca does not believe that this will make Americans more supportive of the war in Afghanistan, but she notes that this probably wasn't Trump's aim. "He did a fair job of saving face for himself about why he was pursuing the war, despite what he had previously said about it."

Read more:  Afghanistan: 'This war cannot be won with bombs'

So what does all of this mean now?

Before the speech, there was much talk about whether Trump, after giving his address and deciding on a new strategy for Afghanistan, would then "own" the war effort in Afghanistan. But that notion was wrong to begin with, in Mercieca's view:

"As President of the United States Trump has always owned the Afghan war effort, whether he wanted to or not. This speech means that Trump has responsibility over the specific decision to escalate the war if that is what he will do."

With his Afghanistan address, the president wants to have his cake and eat it too, said Lyall:  "On the one hand, it's clear he's following his generals' advice, and so is able to wash his hands of the war in case this effort fails. On the other hand, he has positioned himself to reap the rewards in the unlikely event that this strategy does in fact turn Afghanistan around," he said. "Trump wants to own the war, but only if he wins it. If not, his generals will own the defeat."

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