Trump’s Foreign Policy Opportunity

Threatening the stability of enemy regimes.

President Donald Trump wants American fighters off the world’s battlefields, as he promised during the presidential election campaign of 2016. His special envoy to Afghanistan, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, has gone to Kabul with a draft of a peace treaty, and Trump constantly changes his view on how many Americans will stay in the country, if—and it’s a big if—the Taliban and the Afghan government go for it.

The president’s most recent pronouncement came on a TV interview in recent days. As the New York Times reported,

In a Fox News interview last week, President Trump alluded to keeping American forces, and perhaps the C.I.A., in Afghanistan after any deal with the Taliban is reached. “We are reducing that presence very substantially and we’re going to always have a presence and we’re going to have high intelligence,” he said.

Mr. Trump told his TV interviewer that he was planning to reduce the level of U.S. fighters to just under ten thousand, mostly drawn from the ranks of U.S. Special Forces, and under the control of the C.I.A. The Taliban are opposed to this arrangement, believing that there is little difference between our military forces and those under C.I.A. command, and thus far the peace talks have involved only the Taliban and the Americans. 

It certainly looks like a formula for defeat. Trump wants out, and the Taliban, unhindered by anything calling itself the Afghan government, wants in. And how could it be otherwise, if the White House insists on making a deal with our enemies? The Taliban receives copious quantities of aid, including military training, from Iran, and then blames it on ISIS. 

Meanwhile, the president insists that he doesn’t want regime change in Tehran, but only different behavior from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei: an end to Iran’s support for terror activities, the termination of Iranian missile development, and real transparency regarding Tehran’s nuclear program, much of which was revealed by Israel. Trump wants talks with Iran, no advance concessions offered or asked, but the Iranians insist that sanctions have to be lifted before they talk to the president. This is a formula for a continued standoff between the two countries, each demanding what the other says won’t be granted. So long as the two leaders stick to their guns, no common ground exists. Iran will continue to covertly avoid the terms of the Iran deal, and the United States has only secret ways to undermine Iran’s stratagems.

The same pattern is at work to our south. Trump continues to offer sanctuary to high-ranking Venezuelan civilian and military officials in exchange for an end to Maduro’s tyrannical rule. Maduro isn’t interested in such deals. Like Assad in Syria, Maduro wants to win his war, and he isn’t prepared to bargain away power in exchange for whatever Trump is prepared to offer.

Then there’s China, which appears to have concluded that the American president isn’t going to give active military support to the masses of Hong Kongers demanding freedom. If he can’t deal effectively with a relatively small country in a zone once controlled by the Monroe Doctrine, or with an Iranian regime that desperately needs money, he is not likely to tackle the more than a billion and a half people in mainland Communist China. 

If you go through the list of our current enemies, you will find them all facing serious internal crises. Is this an opportunity for Trump? 

“The high-end forces, including C.I.A.-supported forces, are not going to win any war for you, but they may degrade the capability of terrorist groups,” said Seth G. Jones, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former adviser to the commanding general of American Special Operations forces in Afghanistan.

But like other former officials, Mr. Jones said that ramping up the operations of the militias while drawing down the American military would be impractical and ineffective.

A peace deal that pulls out American forces but does not disarm the Taliban would give it control of larger parts of Afghanistan, effectively creating a safe haven for terrorist groups that no increase in C.I.A. support to the militias could counter, Mr. Jones warned.

Seth Jones has Afghanistan right, and his thoughts resonate across national boundaries, religious and other ideological conflicts, and commercial disagreements. If the president hopes to win the global war in which we’re engaged, he must find a way to threaten the stability of the enemy regimes. Sanctions and strong language are not good enough.


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