In a major foreign policy address August 21, U.S. President Donald Trump outlined the pillars of a new strategy for Afghanistan, and indicators of his greater foreign policy views. Some pundits immediately declared it a "Trump Doctrine," perhaps prematurely.
No more nation-building, but re-integrating the Taliban.
Trump identified three assumptions about Afghanistan. One, the need for "an honorable and enduring outcome" – a U.S. "win." Two, the dangers of what would follow a direct U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan (despite campaign pledges that signified withdrawal was the correct strategy). Three, the important role of Pakistan in a regional solution.
Trump established four "pillars" that follow from these assumptions. First, policies would flow from conditions, rather than from a timetable like the one then-President Obama established. Second, the U.S. will take a combined diplomatic, economic, and military approach. (In many ways this was the approach of Obama since 2009 and President George W. Bush before that.) Third, the U.S. will emphasize a new India-Pakistan policy: get more support from India, and get tough on Pakistan. Finally, Trump promised a change to the "rules of engagement," perhaps easing existing limits on commanders.
A Trump Doctrine?
Within these, though, two important, related changes stand out – changes that may indeed develop into a Trump Doctrine. First, no more nation-building, no more trying to rebuild states "in our image." Second, a chance for re-integration of the Taliban into the government and governance of Afghanistan. Each has some promise and some risk.
The models of postwar Japan and [West] Germany enticed American post-Cold War policy makers into the belief that the United States could once again help rebuild broken states into peaceful, prosperous, democratic members of the international community. The Allies' major World War II enemies became model states, with Western guidance (and enforcement) and decades of the states' own work. These same goals could be achieved, it was thought, from Somalia to Haiti to East Timor to Bosnia and more. As a presidential candidate in 2000, George W. Bush promised an end to nation-building, but then developed these very aims in Afghanistan and Iraq. This might be enormously difficult in underdeveloped Afghanistan. But might well have been possible in literate, industrial, bureaucratic Iraq.
Sixteen (and 14) years later, President Trump has seen enough. The United States' new policy is "We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists." This was a popular message during his presidential campaign. If nation-building in Afghanistan was ever possible (and it may not have been), the U.S. never figured out how to do it.
But seeming to abandon care of whether Afghanistan develops a real democracy risks sending the message that the U.S. no longer cares about democratization and democracy at all. Since the end of the Cold War, this was a position mostly reserved for major oil exporters like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, or the giant China. If after 16 years and thousands of killed and wounded U.S. soldiers it no longer cares about whether Afghanistan is on a democratic path, then what does it care about the Philippines, Venezuela, Ukraine, Turkey, Hungary, or many other states whose democracy the U.S. supported in word or deed since the end of the Cold War? What free pass does it give leaders of such states? For a time in the 1990s, democracy was widely seen by populations around the world as the preferred form of government. Governments were keen to give (or at least seem to give) the people what they wanted – or the people took it. Democracy promotion has roots in the U.S.'s own Revolution, and has been policy since at least Woodrow Wilson nearly 100 years ago. U.S. support of democracy, as a shining city on a hill or with a cohesive diplomatic, economic, and security approach, was a cornerstone attribute of idealist American policy and America's image. President Trump seems to be reverting to more of a calculated Cold War-era realism, extended from FDR's "but he's our s.o.b." approach. Trump's message seems to be that the U.S. will fight for the Afghan state where it meets U.S. interests, but not for the Afghan people. People elsewhere will hear this too.
The second key element of a possible Trump doctrine – allowing for eventual re-integration of the Taliban into Afghan governments – follows from this abandonment of nation-building. On the one hand, it retains the notion that the United States decides who gets to be in the Afghan government. This is consistent with Trump's emphasis on American "hard power" and interests. On the other hand, re-integration of former elites is an important component of democratization theory and its nation-building niche. At some point, peace requires either the complete eradication of the old elites, or the willingness and ability to re-integrate them into governance and society. Nazism and militarism were banned in post-World War II Germany and Japan. But the end of the formal occupations included removing the "lifetime" bans against most of the former officials who had been kept out of public life from 1945 until the early 1950s. Iraqi Baathists were banned from government posts after the overthrow of Saddam in 2003; the failure to re-integrate Saddam-era officials was consistent with the evolving Shia-Sunni conflict. In Bosnia, old elites are still separated into ethnic-based parties and their autonomous statelets, 20 years after the war's end.
In these ways, there is a real clash of messages. What is the goal of U.S. policy in Afghanistan – to fight terrorists, to defeat the Taliban, to bring the Taliban into a peaceful role in the government, or some combination? The answer may be that events may dictate goals as much as goals dictate events.