I did not watch it live, but I did hear and read extensive discussion and analysis later by experts who know much more than I do. Advance rumors had it that Trump would announce an increase of some 4,000 US troops on the ground. Instead, he indicated that there would be some increase in troop levels but did not specify a number. He said that both the number of troops and the ending of US involvement would be determined by conditions, not by a timetable. He also said that our mission will not be nation-building but rather eliminating Taliban terrorism and strengthening the self-government of the people.
This was a soberly delivered speech. Its content clearly reflects the thinking of his group of advisers who have been engaged in discussions for months, and gathered last weekend at Camp David for a meeting with the president to define a new Afghanistan strategy.
Just prior to the weekend, and with Steve Bannon gone from the White House, the hair-brained scheme, being pushed by Bannon, to privatize the mission to Eric Prince's Blackwater army of mercenaries, was dropped from the agenda. So the options came down to three, which were presented to the president: (1) pull out; (2) send in more troops; or (3) shift to a CIA led covert, counterterrorism stategy.
The top military advisers said that pulling out would leave Afghanistan at risk of becoming another terrorist haven for the Islamic State. And CIA Director Mike Pompao was against taking on such a large scale operation for his agency, So it left option 2, which the president reluctantly signed off on.
The next step was to clarify what our objectives are and what would be criteria for ending our involvement. In his speech, Trump spoke about continuing to train Afghan troops and convince them to take more responsibility, as well as trying to combat the corruption in the Afghan government -- all with the ultimate aim of their taking control of their own country, so we can leave without creating the vacuum for the Taliban to take over again. Details of all this were deliberately left vague.
In fact, there really is not much difference from the later Obama strategy. Although Trump spoke of "winning," his plan sounds much more like containment than winning. As one commentator said, there are really only two new elements: (1) a much tougher stance toward Pakistan over their providing havens for the Taliban; and (2) trying to bring India into closer alliance, knowing that will also put pressure on Pakistan, given their long-standing rivalry.
My take-away is best summed up by comments from an NPR guest, whose name I did not get because I tuned in after the introduction. He said that, given Trump's diametrically opposite campaign positions (insisting we should "get out now"), his observation was that the turn-around shows that Trump "is capable of listening to competent advisers" and changing his mind. That in itself is encouraging.
However, a word of caution. Trump has proved before that he can read a speech someone else wrote for him, and then within hours completely undermine and undo the good effect.
Let's see what happens at his controversial campaign-style rally in Phoenix. on Tuesday night. Will he does what he has hinted -- pardoning Joe Arpaio, the so-called "toughest sheriff in America," who has been convicted of contempt of court for defying a judge's order to stop profiling Hispanics for immigration status?
Even if he doesn't, there's little doubt he will further inflame the tensions between his core supporters and the growing anti-Trump counter-protesters. That's why he holds these rallies. And besides, he's just "given in" and done what he had to do about Afghanistan; so he's going to have his overpowering urge to let loose and make up for it by acting out. That's just who he is.
Phoenix's mayor, Greg Stanton, a Democrat, has urged him to delay his trip. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Stanton wrote:
"America is hurting . . . largely because Mr. Trump has doused racial tensions with gasoline. With his planned visit to Phoenix on Tuesday, I fear the president may be looking to light a match."The Phoenix police department is preparing. Let's hope it turns out more like Boston than Charlottesville.