On Monday, I began writing about the President’s speech on Afghanistan. My initial thought: while I disagree with much the President said (more about this in a moment), at least I wasn’t embarrassed. This was a positive step and I was hopeful that I might write an encouraging word.
But then I realized I should probably wait a day because of Mr. Trump’s “campaign style” rally in Phoenix scheduled for Tuesday—an occasion that Mayor Greg Stanton asked the President to postpone because of recent volatile events in Charlottesville. The President demurred and sure enough, Monday’s unifying remarks were radically replaced by a divisive, derisive speech where he blatantly told half-truths about his reaction to Charlottesville while condemning the media for “very dishonest” coverage of those remarks; mocked Senator John McCain while giving North Korea’s Kim Jong-un a pass on his belligerent threats toward the US; never mentioned the tragic naval accident off the coast of Singapore; misstated the number of protesters waiting outside the Convention Center; falsely accused the “fake news media” of turning off their red “record” lights and threatened to shut down the Government unless Congress authorized building a border wall. Pleas for unity from just the night before had evaporated in the Arizona heat.
And the very next day, staying on script at a speech to the American Legion in Reno, the President returned to his conciliatory tone. But the question lingers: which Ping Pong President will show up in any given moment? In these pages, I have often railed against the President’s deficiencies and could do so again in response to his Tuesday evening performance in Phoenix. Rather, as per my original intent, I will turn to the substance of the President’s presentation on Monday night (how refreshing).
The first notable—and positive—moment for me came when the President actually acknowledged that he had a change of mind. He said his initial inclination—and oft-stated intent during the campaign—was to immediately exit Afghanistan. However, being behind the desk in the oval office changed his thinking. Now, really, Mr. President, was it so hard to admit that?
His policy of making results-based decisions instead of timeline-based actions is not much of a change. Both Presidents Bush and Obama shifted tactics when moving from campaign mode to governing. Trump’s “new” Afghan policy ran contrary to desires of his base, something he has been reluctant to do; and that is a good sign. He claims we will use “all instruments of national power” to secure victory but he continues to assert that we will not be engaged in “nation building.” As Paul Miller says in Foreign Policy Magazine, “In what sense is the United States using all instruments of national power if it is not using economic assistance to help the Afghan economy, or technical help to support the Afghan electoral process, or providing police training or support to political parties or the rule of law — or any of the other activities that get unfairly tarnished with the boogeyman of “nation building?”
Further, I was disappointed in the way the President approached Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan’s unending civil strife. While at Intersections, through first-hand experience in Pakistan, I saw Pakistani disappointment in the narrow, military-first solutions that so often emerge from the US side. Often in the US, Pakistan slips beneath the radar for months at a time and we become complacent or disinterested. Our US-Pakistan Interreligious Consortium (UPIC) work for more than five years included an underlying assumption that we must stay the course even when Pakistan is not in the headlines, for sure enough, it shall return to prominence. I suspect we are on the cusp of such renewed interest. We need to be ready as relations with Pakistanis are continually maintained and efforts at peacebuilding consistently affirmed.
As NPR’s Diaa Hadid said on Tuesday morning, “it just felt like they [Pakistanis] were being berated without any acknowledgement of the steps they’ve actually taken to fight militancy. And that includes years of military operations in the mountainous border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan to uproot these groups. And Pakistan has also begun building a fence along that mountainous border to minimize as much as possible these cross border attacks…I think there’s a certain frustration here also that their own sacrifices haven’t been acknowledged. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in Pakistan in militant attacks.”
I do not challenge Trump’s assumptions (based on advice from his military advisers which, thankfully, he has taken in this instance) but his conclusions are too narrow. Pakistan has the potential to be a genuine ally in the effort to root out extremist influence in the region, but President Trump continues the pattern of past leaders in failing to include non-military dimensions as integral to this effort. Strong and influential forces within Pakistani society (and legions of supporters among Pakistani Americans) are tired of being dragged into the Afghan struggle and seek a more inclusive solution to this long-standing conflict, including social, political, educational, organizational and economic linkages. President Trump’s response is insufficient for achieving transformational change either within Pakistan or in US-Pakistan relations. Bringing India into the equation without acknowledging historic animosities is interpreted by many Pakistanis as a slap in the face and only further erodes what little trust exists between our two countries.
Still, in keeping with this week’s scientific theme, we must not let Tuesday’s Arizona version of Donald Trump eclipse Monday’s Virginia version, with all its shortcomings. We need to focus on the policies that continue to unfold despite the headline grabbing chaos. In terms of the President’s new Afghan strategy, I wish it was more inventive, not just more of the same. We need a visionary leader, who views the world through complex lenses, examining the various refractions for innovative solutions. And we must be willing to engage in constructive, bilateral partnerships to find long term solutions to critical geopolitical concerns in this region and throughout the world.