Give him a teleprompter, and President Donald Trump comes across as dignified. He is substantive and he makes sense, as in resurrecting an exit strategy from war that had all but been forgotten. It is called victory.
His predecessor would put up with no such notion and, in Afghanistan, launched new tactics while setting a date for our withdrawal. That meant the Taliban enemy could trot around killing as the itch occurred and waiting for the happy day. President Barack Obama finally gave up on that stupidity, tried out other plans and still saw the war drag on longer than any other in our history — 16 years at this point.
During his campaign and early in his presidency, Trump wanted to yank all the U.S. soldiers out and say good riddance to a seeming misadventure that has cost us some 2,500 American lives and a trillion dollars. Even with 100,000 troops there a few years back, compared with 8,500 today, we achieved little, he knew, and yet he listened. His generals made contrary arguments, and, as he said in a nationally televised speech Monday, the day of the solar eclipse, he changed his mind.
The points he made were good ones.
For one thing, we will be fighting a war, not trying the hopeless task of nation building, and we will be doing so in our self-interest. Afghanistan is where al-Qaida plotted and organized the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It now harbors some 20 different terrorist groups that would love nothing better than having all of us dead. To take off with the Taliban primed for more power would be to invite more plots and more assaults here and around the world.
This war will be fought with might, no equivocation and no surcease of Taliban sorrow. Rules of engagement? Some extra precautions were long ago taken to safeguard civilians and win their support but, when stretched too far, the rules can endanger our troops and curb their effectiveness. Trump is ordering that they be revised.
We’re going to get tough with Pakistan. A major disadvantage for us has been that our terrorist enemies can obtain safe havens there, and Trump is saying no more. This will entail some difficult, tricky maneuvers, but we’re capable of that. We’re also going to ask India for more help, expect more assistance from our European allies and look to the Afghan government to deal with its corruption.
In what seemed to contradict his talk about our self-interest, Trump also suggested we won’t be sticking around if Afghanistan does not do its bit in the war, but the nudge may be needed if we are to succeed.
Critics of all of this were quick to have at Trump for not providing enough details, such as how many more troops he would send Afghanistan’s way. I hereby give them grade deductions for not paying attention. Repeating a constant thesis of his, Trump made it clear he is not going to provide our enemies a counter-strategy by giving them the details of ours. Might politics have been part of his reticence? Yes. Politics is how Washington works.
The extra bit of good news here is that Trump did not sound like an ego freak romping around crazily. He was under control, and it was clear, too, that he would not conduct war as an Obama-style, micromanaging second-guesser, disregarding, for instance, expert advice that it was necessary to keep troops in Iraq to safeguard it from terrorist ambitions. Trump seems to get it that war is war and that, if you forget as much, you make it even worse.
When Trump goes adlib, as in a press conference where reporters shriek about a white supremacist, “alt-right” protest were answered in kind, he often loses and loses big. It has been adding up to the point of a presidency in deep trouble. Rectification resides with heeding the wisdom of others, controlling impulses, having good writers lend a hand and using teleprompters as necessary.
Jay Ambrose is a columnist for Tribune News Service.