On August 21, President Trump took the stage at Fort Myer, Virginia to announce his long-awaited plan for the future of US engagement in Afghanistan. After spending the first few minutes of his 26 minute speech building up American unity and patriotism in an attempt to pivot from his disappointing and disheartening rhetoric post-Charlottesville, the Commander in Chief got down to discussing his brand new plan for Afghanistan.
The big reveal was far from the massive policy overhaul Trump had once promised. Despite being a man who “like[s] following my instincts”, it seems that the administration will follow in the footsteps of Presidents before him.
Troops already in place will stay on the ground, with more American forces to join in the coming “days or weeks”. America will not nation-build, but rather help the Afghan government and people to “take ownership of their future”. In short, America is there to “kill terrorists” (al Qaeda, ISIS, and Taliban).
To facilitate the killing of terrorists, the Trump plan does deviate in a few important ways from previous administrations. First, military strategy and operations will be less transparent. The President spoke of an approach based on conditions, rather than time. Exactly what those conditions are is anyone’s guess. This approach means less information about numbers of troops and the dates of upcoming military actions.
The second major development under the Trump administration is the loosening of “restrictions” on the military. This eschewing of “micromanagement from Washington, DC” is a policy that Trump is proud of, and one that he says is helping us to win the battle against ISIS.
What the president failed to mention in his speech, and what his vague plan doesn’t address, is the associated cost born by civilians in the US’s fight against terror and the second and third order effects of civilian harm. Since the Trump administration took office, civilian deaths by US airstrikes are up 70% in Afghanistan, compared to the same time period in 2016. The figures from Iraq and Syria are similarly devastating.
Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) has been active in Afghanistan for over a decade, and we have seen the way in which increased military presence can work to prevent civilian harm, or contribute to it. As new US forces arrive on the ground, the Department of Defense must embrace operating in a way that avoids harming civilian men, women, and children, lest their only experience with the United States be one marked by violence and loss.
The President is right, Americans have suffered in the course of what has become our longest fought war, but reducing the emphasis on protecting civilians, minimizing harm to civilians, and decreasing the transparency of our military operations will not hasten the war’s end. Even subtly suggesting that greater civilian harm must be the inevitable cost of “swift, decisive, and overwhelming force” presents a false choice between protecting civilian life and defeating terrorists.
To create a future that all Afghans will believe in, there must be trust between the people and the government. As a key ally and training partner of Afghanistan, the United States would be doing a great disservice to that trust by foregoing a strong stance on protecting civilian lives—or failing to train Afghan forces on the same. The United States military was once the key player in civilian harm mitigation in Afghanistan, the smart strategy is to become that again. If we do not prioritize protecting civilian lives, we may just be building the next generation of those who will fight against the US.