Trump’s speech last night was full of errors, lies, contradictions, propaganda and logical fallacies. The mainstream media was predictable in its reactions, with those on the left slamming Trump in largely non-specific terms, few of them pointing out that all evidence in Afghanistan suggests the war cannot be won. Instead, they attempted to claim the moral high-ground, like Rachel Maddow saying Trump “…constantly called it a waste including a waste of American lives which is a very dicey thing to say about a war where people are still dying.” It was easy pro-war propaganda feigning as possibly being anti-war, as if people dying there today make the deaths of Americans (and Afghans) any less of a waste and tragedy. Right wing pundits largely took it as a moment to happily be Republicans again, Newt Gingrich calling it “his most courageous speech” on Fox News.
Missing from these responses, missing from most of the coverage I had a chance to look at today, were several critical issues in the speech. These are issues which rot our Afghanistan policy from within, a rot which can be found throughout the violence being perpetrated by America in the world today.
First, let’s start with the outright errors and lies. The war in Afghanistan is not our longest war. That honor belongs to the Korean War, which remains frozen in carbonite during the longest halftime ever. Even as our longest “hot war,” Afghanistan has been sixteen years, not the seventeen years Trump claimed last night. Even a President as incompetent as Trump should have the correct length of the war in his teleprompters but he apparently dates the war’s start to before 9/11. He also blatantly lied about his appreciation of the cohesion of our military forces, given his transgender soldier policy that seeks to tear that very cohesion apart.
Trump spoke of how his policy of loosening our rules of engagement has sped our efforts against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Yet, he failed to mention that those very same new rules of engagement have cost over forty thousand civilian lives from American bombs in our efforts to retake Mosul and Raqqa. His erasure of these human lives is the worst kind of lie, not only a lie of omission but one that omits human life itself.
Trump claimed we will not be doing nation-building, while talking about supporting and empowering the current Afghan government until it can stand on its own two feet. If this isn’t nation building, what is? He also spoke of Afghan self-determination, yet a country is not governing itself if its government is an American puppet regime that will fall the moment American forces withdraw from the country. Again, a contradiction in Trump’s very own words last night.
The President repeatedly declared we will win without ever explaining what exactly winning entails. Is it a stable government in Kabul with complete control over every inch of Afghan territory, something that has seldom happened in Afghan history over the last several decades? Is it the death of every single person deemed an enemy combatant along with untold more civilians?
This line of propaganda was in keeping with the vision he painted of American wars overseas, “In every generation, we have faced down evil and we have always prevailed.” Again, his own comments about us not winning wars anymore contradicted this. But I’d rather leave it to John Cleese’s Archie in A Fish Called Wanda taunting Kevin Kline’s Otto: “Winners like North Vietnam!… I’m telling ya, baby, they kicked a little ass there. Boy, they whooped your hide real good!” Seriously, for a moment of levity in this horror show, re-watch that scene.
We all know that the story of America’s post-WWII adventures is not a story of winning, despite the cognitive dissonance that may create for Trump supporters and neoconservatives across the two party system.
Also built into this Trumpaganda is the assumption of American lives being more valuable than non-Americans and American soldiers being more righteous than any others. I have no intention to demean or insult our troops, but engaging this fundamental untruth perpetuates the belief that we’re right in our wars because our troops are so amazing we can’t be wrong. But are American soldiers any braver than the Spartans who fought at Thermopylae, the French and British who died at Verdun or the Russians who sacrificed everything to hold onto Stalingrad? He went on to speak of Arlington as the most sacred ground in the world. Arlington is our national cemetery and holds powerful meaning for all Americans, but it is not somehow a greater cemetery than across Europe where many great men and women, including Americans, are buried and memorialized. And let us not forget the untold number of unmarked graves around the world where the victims of American imperialism lie, their suffering and deaths forever erased by a history written by the “winners.”
Compounding one lie on top of another Trump said, “The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable.” He went on to create a false equivalency with Iraq and Libya. Yet, by the President’s own words, “Today, twenty U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Such was not the case in the immoral regime change wars in Iraq and Libya, each controlled and held together by its own strongman. The Taliban and ISIS currently have significant territory in Afghanistan, with the Taliban at times holding as much territory as at any time since the fall of Kabul. Afghanistan is already a harbor for jihadi terrorism. A full withdrawal would not alter that in any way. And with Afghanistan’s nickname, “the graveyard of empires,” and the history of the Russian and British quagmires that preceded ours, Trump’s undefined eventual victory in Afghanistan is clearly an empty promise.
Perhaps more frightening was his discussion of India and Pakistan. The very reason Pakistan harbors “enemies” of the United States is that it is a fractured country and society, without stable democratic processes and with threatened public institutions. Factions and peoples in Pakistan, some with power, many without, include the Sunni, Shia, and Sufi, as well as much smaller oppressed minorities including Ahmadi Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis, and Jains. Sectarian violence has been rampant for decades. Pakistan’s military and ISI spy agency have long been riddled with sympathizers of fundamentalist Islamic terrorist groups who work against America’s interests. But Trump wants to bring India into our conflict as a partner (in ways he couldn’t explain), which will heighten already high nuclear tensions between India and Pakistan. Little could embolden and empower the fundamentalists in Pakistan more than the common enemy of India being involved in Afghanistan, threatening more of Pakistan’s border security. It’s nonsensical from a strategic standpoint and only promises to make the Pakistan piece of the puzzle even more dangerous.
With all of this in mind, Trump’s greatest perfidy is his continued insistence on his right to rule over our foreign policy with an iron hand and unchecked power. To the degree that our system still functions as designed, this is a democratic republic dependent upon an engaged and informed citizenry. That is why the President has the moral responsibility to inform us of major military deployments instead of attempting to fight wars in secret like so many Presidents before him. But secrecy is as essential to war as lies, because an informed citizenry only has so much patience for war. This is why we largely stayed out of foreign wars for the first hundred years of our history, following the guidance of George Washington, whose farewell address was read annually in every public square in America for decades after his death and warned we should “avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”
As for his supposed policy of letting the generals lead, surrendering civilian control of wars to generals and “conditions on the ground” is a dereliction of duty and foolhardy nonsense, equally divorced from common sense as our war in Afghanistan. The military culture is one of fighting and (hopefully) winning wars, not walking away. There will always be voices from within the military (and military-industrial) establishment insisting on more war, on a new strategy that will win the day. That is why we have civilian leadership – to prevent us from endless war. To quote another founding father, from the Declaration of Independence, regarding King George III: “He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.”
That is exactly what Trump is doing with his escalation of our unjust wars.