President Donald Trump’s plan to escalate the war in Afghanistan is largely a continuation of his predecessor’s policy in Afghanistan, including President Barack Obama’s decision to abandon withdrawal of United States military forces in his last year in office.
There was scant opposition to Obama’s pursuit of endless war during his presidency, and now that Trump effectively owns the agenda for war, Democrats have a political opportunity to finally oppose the war. However, at the moment, few are moving to boldly call for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Trump announced the “new strategy” for Afghanistan will involve an approach based on “conditions” instead of a “time-based approach.” Obama’s policy in his last year in office, however, was based on “conditions” and largely why he abandoned plans for withdrawing United States military forces in July 2016.
He boasted of a “new strategy” that involved integrating “all instruments of American power: diplomatic, economic, and military, toward a successful outcome.” But Obama requested that allies commit additional troops to the war when 30,000 additional troops were sent to Afghanistan in 2009. The Obama administration also pledged to work with the United Nations and diplomatic partners.
It is unclear what Trump means by “economic” power, but Obama and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani announced in 2015 that “economic reform” was a “central pillar of the national unity government’s agenda.” Obama pledged up to $800 million in “U.S. economic assistance” to spur development.
While one might think Trump’s pledge to “not talk about numbers of troops” or “plans for further military activities” is indefensible, Obama engaged in secretive troop build-ups in Afghanistan. He claimed the combat phase of the war ended but later redefined labels to permit troops to engage in fighting in Afghanistan.
Trump claimed he “lifted restrictions” that were placed on “war fighters,” which prevented the secretary of defense and commanders from “fully and swiftly waging battle.” That is not hugely out of step when it comes to war-making policies.
The Obama administration “loosened” restrictions on U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2016. As reported by the New York Times, airstrikes no longer had to be “justified as necessary to defend American troops.” Commanders were allowed to use “air power” against the Taliban when they saw fit and forces were allowed to accompany Afghan troops into combat.
Presumably, the biggest departure may be that Trump will give the U.S. military greater freedom to engage in carpet bombing on a scale that may result in the kind of civilian carnage that has occurred in Iraq since he assumed office.
Much was made about a potential expansion of the war into Pakistan without the full support of the country’s government. Recall, Obama launched around 375 drone strikes in Pakistan that injured at least 990 people and killed more than 2,100 people, including so-called militants reportedly targeted. It is not like Obama was granting terrorists sanctuary.
The war in Afghanistan was launched in 2001, as an act of retaliation for the September 11th attacks.
As of August 2016, according to the “Costs Of War Project” at the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University, at least 31,000 Afghan civilians have been killed in Afghanistan. Well over 40,000 Afghan civilians were “seriously injured” since January 2009. The International Committee of the Red Cross treated 9,200 new patients in 2015, and 1,261 were amputees.
It was estimated, as of June 2016, that there were 1.4 million refugees inside Afghanistan and “nearly 1 million Afghans were internally displaced.” There are at least 2.6. million Afghan refugees in over 70 countries.
When Obama was still president, the percentage of civilians in Afghanistan killed by “pro-government forces,” according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), rose dramatically. Since 2013, deaths of children sharply escalated, with 639 deaths and 1,822 injuries documented. The rate of civilian deaths from airstrikes has also skyrocketed in the last two years of the Obama administration.
The specifics that depict the human toll of endless war in Afghanistan are what matters. Yet, what Democrats said in response largely suggests they are likely to take a technocratic approach to Trump’s plans instead of pushing for an end to war.
“When President Trump says there will be no ceiling on the number of troops and no timeline for withdrawal, he is declaring an open-ended commitment of American lives with no accountability to the American people,” Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi declared. “The American people need to know more about the President’s plans and conditions.”
“To what extent is there a comprehensive strategy, including an exit strategy for finally bringing America’s heroes home? Congress looks forward to a comprehensive briefing on the troop increase and overall strategy as soon as possible,” Pelosi added.
Pelosi neglected the record of a Democratic president, who left office with a fairly open-ended commitment to war. She also seems open to another escalation as long as Trump agrees to plan an exit strategy, which could be set years from now.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who is the ranking Democrat on the personal subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the speech lacked details, substance, and a “vision of what success in Afghanistan looks like.”
On Twitter, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto meekly pledged to ask if Trump’s plan would really make America safer and what it would mean for deployed troops. Senator Tim Kaine tweeted, “The American public deserves more details from POTUS on Afghanistan.”
Senator Bob Casey called for a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in order to make U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq seem more legal while Senator Tom Carper offered tempered praise as he recommended Gen. John Nicholson be kept on as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Hawkishly, Senator Maggie Hassan largely echoed the warmongering of Trump and stated, “It is critical that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorists, and we must constantly adjust to the situation on the ground and maintain a troop presence that can ensure that Afghanistan does not slip backward.”
Support for maintaining a U.S. troop presence was also expressed by Senator Jeanne Shaheen, and she suggested a “fully engaged diplomatic presence,” as well as a “stronger, more resilient NATO” would be critical.
Senator Jack Reed also recommended more emphasis on diplomacy, contending the State Department must be properly staffed and the budget for foreign aid for Afghanistan’s government must not be slashed. And Senator Richard Blumenthal argued, “Military force without forceful effective diplomacy is no strategy,” before he proceeded to endorse a continuation of war.
The closest any Senate Democrat came to strong opposition to continuing war was the statement from Senator Jeff Merkley, where he proclaimed, “Americans are exhausted by a seemingly endless war. We have lost too many brave service members, and we owe all who have served there an extraordinary debt of gratitude. It is time for the president to present a compelling plan for regional stability and an end to American military involvement — not a vague plan to continue the failed strategies of the past.”
From the House of Representatives, Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley stated, “President Trump has no strategy for ending the war in Afghanistan.” He was disappointed there were no plans announced to “extract” troops from the “volatile region.”
Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur demanded “clarity of objective,” and maintained, “There can be no blank check for war anywhere. Committing more American troops without a clear path forward will not lead to the resolution of this sixteen-year war.”
While Representative Pramala Jayapal suggested Congress should listen to Americans who want to end the war and tweeted, “We need a concerted diplomatic effort to sustainably end the war in Afghanistan and bring our heroes home.”
The strongest Democratic opponent of the announced escalation was Representative Barbara Lee, who was the sole opposition for the authorization of war under President George W. Bush.
“I am deeply troubled by President Trump’s failure to outline a comprehensive strategy to bring an end to our nation’s longest war. After sixteen years at war, one thing is clear: there is no military solution in Afghanistan,” Lee stated. “Any lasting peace in Afghanistan must be secured through diplomacy. Further military engagement will only put our brave servicemen and women in harm’s way while doing little to enhance our national security.”
There were very few Democrats, who indicated they would staunchly oppose escalation. Some even did what Trump probably hopes they will do, which is not oppose him because they recognize war-making is part of a bipartisan national consensus in Washington, D.C.
Nevertheless, for those representatives and senators, who see themselves as part of “The Resistance,” this is no longer “The Good War” that Obama escalated, drew down, and then kickstarted again. It is Trump’s war. They have a political opportunity to resist perpetual war under a deeply unpopular and despised president.