Trump's Afghanistan Plan Is Criticized For Being Short On Details

Aug 22, 2017
Originally published on August 24, 2017 7:23 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Last night, at Fort Myer military base just across the river from Washington, D.C., President Trump laid out what he called a path forward in Afghanistan.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: From now on, victory will have a clear definition - attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaida, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.

GREENE: This was a nationally televised speech. And the president said his plan would include giving greater decision-making to the military on the ground. Beyond that, the president did not provide a whole lot of details, like the actual number of U.S. troops being sent to Afghanistan. Although, the Pentagon says that will be about 4,000 troops.

The president pointedly said that he will not have arbitrary timetables for getting out of Afghanistan - an apparent dig at the previous administration. And for reaction, let's turn to someone who worked in the Obama administration. She is with us via Skype. It's Michele Flournoy. She was undersecretary of defense for policy under President Obama. Good morning.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Good morning, David.

GREENE: I want to know what new elements you heard in President Trump's speech last night.

FLOURNOY: Well, this was a big turnaround for President Trump really taking ownership of the war in Afghanistan, which he had been very critical of during his campaign. He was really channeling secretary of defense Mattis and H.R. McMaster far more than, say, Steve Bannon. So he really tried to make the case for staying in Afghanistan.

He laid out a number of key elements in the strategy - shifting to a conditions-based approach, using all instruments of power, putting - being tougher on Pakistan, working more with India and so forth. But the thing that worried me was there weren't a lot of specifics in the speech. And the devil really is in the details here.

GREENE: Although, his argument was that that was deliberate - that offering specifics would be showing your hand to the enemy. Does he have a point? Do you feel like you and President Obama might have showed your hand to the Taliban too much?

FLOURNOY: Well, I think when it comes to telegraphing exactly what you're going to do on the battlefield, there may be a valid point there. But my concern is, you know, this speech was almost exclusively about our military actions in Afghanistan. But military alone cannot deliver a good outcome. He has to come up with a strong and empowered political and diplomatic strategy. And what we've seen on the State Department side is, you know, virtually no capacity. He's cutting the budget. He just disestablished the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan office. So what's not clear is, what's the political and diplomatic effort that's going to leverage any military gains to actually get to an acceptable outcome?

GREENE: OK. Well, let's talk about diplomacy. I mean, he talked about a role for India. He had some tough language for Pakistan. Beyond now hearing this speech, what will you be looking for in the coming months to see whether there is follow through? What is key to have happen with countries like that where you would say, OK, they really are playing a productive role here?

FLOURNOY: Well, I would look, first of all, for him to put someone in charge and really empower a senior diplomat to work this problem every single day, day in, day out, with the government of Afghanistan and with the neighbors, particularly, Pakistan, who has been a serious problem, and Iran, who more recently has increased its meddling. But I'd like to, you know, what is - what are we actually doing differently with Pakistan? Are we putting their status as a non-NATO ally on the table and in question? Are we holding some of our assistance making that conditional for their cooperation? You know, are we taking specific actions that actually have a chance of changing Pakistan's behavior?

GREENE: Michele Flournoy, last night's speech, it raised a question for me about how war actually works. I mean, one of the criticisms that President Trump made about his predecessor, your former boss, President Obama, was that the war was micromanaged from Washington - that the generals on the ground just didn't have the flexibility they needed to make snapshot decisions to go in and go after the Taliban or a terrorist cell. Is that a fair point?

FLOURNOY: No. I think that there were times during the Afghanistan campaign that that probably was a fair point. There was a kind of breach of trust after the leaking of a memo from General McChrystal outlining his recommendations on troops before those recommendations had even come to the president. And it took a long time to get over that breach of trust.

So I have - I don't have an issue with pushing some authorities down to commanders in the field as long as the that is part of a larger and fully-resourced strategy. Again, my worry is that there's too much of an exclusive emphasis on the military component here. And we really haven't seen any real action on the political and diplomatic side, which is going to be what ultimately determines whether we can create that enduring and acceptable outcome that the president called for.

GREENE: Michele Flournoy was undersecretary of defense under President Obama. She's now CEO of the Center for a New American Security. Thanks so much as always. We appreciate it.

FLOURNOY: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.