In Afghanistan, sayeth Mr. Trump, war without end, amen
In March 2003, six days into the second Iraq War, then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commanding the 101st Airborne Division, famously remarked to imbedded Washington Post reporter and military historian Rick Atkinson, "Tell me how this ends."
Concerning the war in Afghanistan, we now have at least part of the answer: it doesn't. On Monday night, reversing his longstanding criticism of a war now more than 16 years old, President Trump essentially endorsed an open-ended effort to win it.
Since neither the president himself nor the military advisers at whose urging he reversed himself have been able to define convincingly what winning looks like, that leaves the dilemma at the root of Petraeus's question unresolved. Instead, we know only that, like the Energizer Bunny, the war will go on and on, and in more or less the same way that it has until now.
As Rick Olson, former U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told The New Yorker's David Rohde after the speech, "Apart from Jacksonian rhetoric, we are pretty much in the same place we have been for the past sixteen years, with a few tweaks. The only real change is simply that Trump is no longer in favor of withdrawal."
Mr. Trump declined during his speech to specify what additional resources he would commit to the effort. But the expectation is that another 4000-odd troops will join the acknowledged 8500 - in reality closer to 12,000 - already in country.
What they will do is not entirely clear. Most presumably will join the effort to advise-and-assist Afghan security forces in their thus far futile effort to defeat Taliban insurgents. Others may be tasked to find and kill ISIS and Al Qaeda operatives.
Regardless, few analysts believe that the additional troops will materially alter what senior military leaders have called a stalemate. Commented one Marine to the Post's Thomas Gibbons-Neff. "You know, it's like someone hit the reset button and now we're out here again saying, 'We can do this, we can win this thing.'"
In fact, "stalemate" doubtfully characterizes the military situation. On the very day of the president's speech, the Taliban overran still another government-controlled district, the sixth to fall in the past month, while on Friday, gunmen attacked a Shiite mosque in the heart of Kabul, killing 20 worshippers and wounding at least 30 more.
So what's the plan? If we understand strategy to mean a scheme to achieve a defined aim, reflecting a more-or-less explicit theory about how to achieve it, we're scarcely wiser about the administration's strategy to win in Afghanistan than we were a week ago.
In fact, most observers saw in Mr. Trump's speech little more than a continuation of the program pursued by his predecessor: keep Afghan government forces fighting despite their mounting casualties in the hope that, eventually, sheer exhaustion will persuade the Taliban to negotiate with the Kabul government.
Since its premises are that the Taliban will abandon their intention to expel what they view as a Western puppet, and that they will become exhausted before we do, the plan inevitably calls to mind the warning of a former Army chief of staff that hope is not a method.
Meanwhile, Afghan civilians are dying in even greater numbers than security forces, no few of them victims of U.S. airstrikes. Given the president's attitude toward Muslims, that reality is unlikely to trouble him.
On the contrary, on Monday night, he promised to loosen further the rules of engagement restricting U.S. targeting, and by extension, the infliction of civilian casualties. "These killers need to know they have nowhere to hide," he declared. Neither, perforce, do the civilians among whom they're imbedded.
For veterans of the Vietnam War, all of this should sound uncomfortably familiar, from destroying the village to save it to the latest incarnation of "peace with honor." The difference, of course, is that the Vietnam War cost us 58,000 U.S. fatalities, most of them draftees. Whereas in Afghanistan, our troops are dying at the rate of only a few a year, and all are volunteers.
Which might explain the cynicism with which former House speaker Newt Gingrich recently justified the new strategy. As he told the Post's Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, "If we can keep American casualties down, we can have patience. The fact is, if you slow down the casualty rate and you're not losing young Americans, the American people will support gradually growing allies for a long time."
Sadly, he's probably right. With little skin in the game beyond the financial costs of the commitment - though far from trivial at more than $1 trillion and rising - Americans have shown little inclination to challenge it, or to hold accountable those responsible for perpetuating it.
So continuing war we will have, as far out as the eye can see. How comforting.