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Trump, Nixon and the Way Forward in Afghanistan

Tags: Trump , Afghanistan , Cold War , United States , ISAF

Saunders, Paul J.

September 25, 2017

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President Trump greets military leaders before his speech on Afghanistan at the Fort Myer military base on August 21, 2017 in Arlington, Virginia. ©Mark Wilson/Getty Images
President Trump greets military leaders before his speech on Afghanistan at the Fort Myer military base on August 21, 2017 in Arlington, Virginia. ©Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s August 21 speech on US strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia was an important statement on a major foreign policy issue. Perhaps most significantly, Mr. Trump successfully reassured many conservatives troubled by his earlier skepticism toward continuing America’s longest war and frustrated by former President Barack Obama’s public timetable for US withdrawal. So far, however, few seem to have assessed deeper undertones in the speech, which in many ways echoed another new president seeking to explain his decision to remain involved in a long and inconclusive inherited conflict: Richard Nixon. Doing so suggests that there may be more to Trump’s remarks than meets the eye.

Former President Nixon’s November 1969 address on the war in Vietnam is usually remembered today as “the silent majority speech” because Mr. Nixon called upon “the great silent majority of my fellow Americans” to support continued US war despite outrage among antiwar activists in city streets and on college campuses. Nixon expected that most Americans would back him if he provided a compelling explanation for his approach; his administration had already announced its “Vietnamization” policy, intended to shift responsibility for the fighting to Vietnam and to facilitate gradual US withdrawal. The Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations have pursued similar strategies for over a decade in Afghanistan in attempting to arm and train Afghan security forces.

Almost 50 years ago, however, Nixon correctly assessed that “many Americans have lost confidence in what their Government has told them about our policy” and acknowledged that they “should not be asked to support a policy which involves the overriding issues of war and peace unless they know the truth about that policy.” [http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=2303]

Nixon was forthright about his own criticism of his predecessor Lyndon Johnson’s management of the war, though he had not openly opposed the US intervention as Mr. Trump did during the 2016 presidential campaign. He was characteristically pragmatic in asking, “Now that we are in the war, what is the best way to end it?”

Afghanistan and Vietnam: Similarities and Differences

Trump took a similar approach in his Afghanistan speech, though somewhat less explicitly. Of course, Nixon had already gone much further than the Trump administration in seeking a peace agreement: he publicly proposed an internationally supervised ceasefire, a withdrawal of “outside forces” from South Vietnam within one year, and free elections open to Communist participation earlier in 1969. Nixon’s speech was thus in no small part an effort to explain that obtaining a credible and satisfactory peace—something that he would term “peace with honor” in announcing the Paris Peace Agreement in 1973 [http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=3808]—would require ongoing US participation in the war until South Vietnam could take over the fighting.

By this time, Nixon had also already set less ambitious military objectives than Trump, who defined victory in Afghanistan as “attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.” [https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/08/21/remarks-president-trump-strategy-afghanistan-and-south-asia]

President Nixon was long past seeking to “obliterate” or “crush” the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese regular army and would count on US arms and money—without US troops—to prevent them from conquering the South. That said, North Vietnam was a state with support from a rival superpower, while the Taliban and other US foes in Afghanistan are nonstate actors without the same level of external help (though they clearly do have some). “Crushing” North Vietnam and “obliterating” the Viet Cong would have required a massive increase in an already staggering military commitment in Vietnam—something effectively impossible at that time.

Richard Nixon (like Obama) tried to find a middle ground between a public timetable for withdrawal to reassure frustrated American voters and a conditions-based “no timetable” approach (like Trump) to maintain military and psychological pressure on US enemies. In his “silent majority speech” Nixon announced that his administration had negotiated “an orderly scheduled timetable” for “the complete withdrawal of all US combat ground forces,” which he said “will be made from strength and not from weakness” and would occur “as South Vietnamese forces become stronger.”

Yet, he said, “I have not and do not intend to announce the timetable for our program,” which would depend upon progress in the Paris talks, enemy activity, and South Vietnam’s capacity to take over the fight. Nixon thus sought to make clear that a timetable existed—to mollify those concerned about the war continuing indefinitely—while also signaling to Hanoi and the Viet Cong that trying to exploit the staged withdrawal of US troops or to wait out Washington by stalling in Paris would only extend America’s combat presence in Vietnam.

Nixon’s announcement of what amounted to a secret timetable made sense considering that he confronted considerably greater political pressure to withdraw from Vietnam than either Obama or Trump have faced over the much longer war in Afghanistan. After all, the draft ensured that Vietnam would be a constant national political issue in a way that Afghanistan—left solely to a professional military and volunteer National Guard troops—has never been.

Trump’s Objective: Gradual Withdrawal?

Despite this and other important differences between the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan, it is remarkable that Trump’s public statement of his strategy seems to parallel Nixon’s in many respects. Some of this clearly reflects fundamental similarities in large-scale counter-insurgency operations, common perceptions of US interests, and a shared priority assigned to intangibles like “leadership” and “credibility.”

Yet some of the Nixon echoes in Trump’s remarks may reflect deliberate choices by the president and his speechwriters, such as Trump’s assertion that “our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome” in Afghanistan, which is reminiscent of Nixon’s “peace with honor.” (Trump already referred to the “silent majority” during the presidential campaign, identifying himself as its champion. [https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/12/us/politics/donald-trump-defiantly-rallies-a-new-silent-majority-in-a-visit-to-arizona.html?_r=0]) Still, while Trump stated that “strategically applied force aims to create the conditions for a political process to achieve a lasting peace,” he devoted much less attention to the terms of any such arrangement.

Some critics [http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2017/08/21/trumps-america-first-base-unhappy-with-flip-flop-afghanistan-speech/] have asserted that the president’s populist political base will reject his decision to continue the US war in Afghanistan, arguing that Trump is turning his back on his “America First” message by adopting what they consider an “establishment” policy and an open-ended commitment to war. This judgment seems premature, however—Trump’s speech could equally easily signal an effort to increase the US role in this inherited war in the short term in order to create domestic, military, and diplomatic conditions that allow for a credible withdrawal sooner rather than later.

His insistence that “we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image” would certainly ease any such effort. And given Trump’s repeated insistence across issues that he will not divulge US plans to America’s rivals, an intent to get out of Afghanistan is at least equally plausible as the unlimited war some fear. If President Trump indeed plans such a disengagement, the fact that US troop levels in Afghanistan are far lower than the half million stationed in Vietnam during Lyndon Johnson’s last year in office could make the process a more rapid one than might seem possible today. Watch this space.

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