Trump's comments about wiping Afghanistan off the map betray a deep misunderstanding of modern warfare

The president's aggressive rhetoric betrays an old-fashioned and frankly concerning perspective on war and peace.
US President Donald Trump leaves after signing the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act.
President Donald Trump leaves after signing the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 at Fort Drum, New York on Aug. 13, 2018.Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images file
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By Jeff McCausland, retired U.S. Army colonel and former member of the National Security Council

President Donald Trump bragged during a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan this week that he could “win” the war in Afghanistan “in a week” if he wanted to. "Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the earth, it would be gone, it would be over literally in 10 days,” he said. “I just don’t want to kill 10 million people.” It is unclear whether the president saw this as an opportunity to threaten the Taliban if they did not agree to a peace settlement or simply a chance to once again appeal to his populist base.

But his remarks about the longest war in American history unsurprisingly set off a firestorm. The president’s unsolicited comments have likely complicated the tenuous relations between Washington and its Afghan allies, made U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s efforts to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban more difficult, and once again befuddled allies as well as his national security advisers. Furthermore, they betray the president’s apparent failure to grasp what an effective military strategy looks like in the modern era. Trump’s talk of wiping countries off the face of the earth betrays an old-fashioned and frankly concerning perspective on war and peace.

Furthermore, they betray the president’s apparent failure to grasp what an effective military strategy looks like in the modern era.

America’s allies will find it disturbing that the president, who has the ultimate power to employ the U.S. nuclear arsenal as well as its massive conventional military presence stationed around the globe, should make such a comment in an apparently flippant manner. The national security strategy of any nation in the 21st century must be a careful integration of its military power in concert with its diplomatic, economic and informational power. It must further acknowledge the existence of new domains of warfare.

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani demanded an immediate explanation and responded that his nation would never “allow any foreign power to determine its fate.” Ghani has extended significant political capital to Washington by accepting ongoing U.S.-Taliban negotiations. But Trump's rhetoric once again raises real questions about the long-term commitment of the U.S. to his country. The president’s statement might well be discounted by observers in Washington but it's viewed as policy in Kabul.

Perhaps in an effort to control the damage, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo phoned Ghani on July 25. The talk seems to have been productive, as the State Department announced the two countries were ramping up efforts to reach a peace deal. The continuation of peace talks is of course good news. The U.S. objective in Afghanistan, beginning back in 2001, was to defeat al Qaeda and prevent future use of Afghan territory to plan, organize and equip terrorist attacks against the United States or its allies. The Taliban-led government in Kabul rejected Bush administration demands to deliver Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of 9/11. Consequently, war with the Taliban was in many ways a byproduct of our primary objective. Today, however, America is trying to negotiate a graceful exit. The outline of an agreement is clear and includes a schedule for the withdrawal of American and other foreign forces in return for assurances that Afghan territory will not be a launchpad for future attacks.

But Trump seems unconcerned by objectives or means. His comments appear to suggest that he believes “winning” in Afghanistan would mean totally defeating our enemy militarily. Yes, it is possible to achieve the peace of the graveyard, as it were, but such a victory has not been a goal of U.S. policy for over a decade. (And countless senior military officers and diplomats over the past 18 years have repeatedly stated that a political settlement was the only possible outcome in Afghanistan.)

Some may argue that the president’s threat to destroy roughly one third of the Afghan population was a merely a way to convince the Taliban to embrace a settlement. Candidate Trump talked about his desire to end the war during the 2016 campaign and now appears to want desperately to do so prior to the 2020 election. But if this were true, he chose a remarkably inopportune time to make this move. His meeting with the Pakistani prime minister was at least partially centered around efforts to reinitiate aid to Islamabad and seek its support in a final peace agreement. American aid to Islamabad in 2018 was suspended amidst countless intelligence reports that Pakistan was continuing to provide support to the Taliban. The president himself had argued that the only thing the United States had gotten from Pakistan was “lies and deceit.” Additionally, senior Afghan leaders have charged for many years that Pakistan allowed Taliban fighters free border passage and unencumbered access to its territory.

Winston Churchill once observed that ''There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them!'' The support of friendly nations and the international community more broadly are an invaluable means to implement strategy. Should Trump push to bomb Afghanistan into submission, his request would represent a total abrogation of whatever moral authority America has left. Such a suggestion would also alienate our NATO allies — who currently provide thousands of troops in the region — and serve as an extraordinary recruiting incentive for Muslim opposition movements. Al Qaeda and ISIS would only strengthen, at Washington’s expense.

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Clearly, the president has misunderstood or ignored Theodore Roosevelt’s description of the presidency as the “bully pulpit.” His words have a greater resonance than he seems to believe, and has a major impact on diplomatic relationships across the globe. Because if a president is willing to even consider killing 10 million in Afghanistan, what’s to stop him or her from considering this option as appropriate elsewhere? This reveals Trump’s inaccurate understanding of American military might, especially in relation to the might of other militaries. It also ignores the importance of American economic, diplomatic and informational power. Furthermore, American friends and allies around the globe look to Washington for leadership backed by American values and morality.

The U.S. may no longer seek to be the world's undisputed peacekeeper, nor is it the largest military. Conflicts going forward will be bloody and unconventional, as both Iraq and Afghanistan have already proven. New domains of cyberwarfare and in space coupled with an ability to influence popular opinion through social media are now an integral part of 21st-century warfare.

According to Brown University’s Watson Institute, 140,000 Afghans have been killed since 2001 and 2.4 million are refugees. Nearly 2,500 Americans and 1,000 allied soldiers have died in combat. There now appears to be an opportunity to end this nearly two-decade long war, but success requires careful negotiations in cooperation with our Afghan and NATO partners. Sadly, the president’s remarks and apparent failure to fully comprehend the complexity of modern strategy make achieving that goal more difficult. It also makes America more alone, strategically and morally.