Analysis: Trump reverses views on Afghanistan, a war with no easy exits

WASHINGTON — In Afghanistan, there are no easy exits.

George W. Bush and Barack Obama discovered that Afghanistan was a conflict they couldn't manage to win but couldn't afford to lose — the reality behind its unwelcome status of America's longest war. 

Now Donald Trump, who as a candidate called for pulling out U.S. troops, as a president is learning that same hard lesson. 

President Trump unveiled his "path forward" in Afghanistan in a nationally televised speech Monday night before a military audience at Fort Myer, just across the Potomac River from Washington. If that sounds familiar, it should: There have been more than a dozen official announcements of a changed course or a fresh approach or a strategic review in the 16 years since Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. 

"My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts, but all of my life I've heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office," Trump declared, describing his decision to continue the U.S. involvement, albeit with conditions. "Our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check. The American people expect to see real reforms and real results."  

The speech stood as a test of the new commander-in-chief's ability to rally a nation weary of this war behind his strategy to wage it — and at a time his moral authority is under fire for his comments on last week's march by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va.

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Related: Analysis: Trump's new Afghanistan war strategy reflects a lack of winning options

It's also a test of the willingness of his core supporters to follow him from the "America First" banner of his campaign, eschewing foreign entanglements in favor of investments at home, to the same complicated compromises of his predecessors. 

The alt-right website Breitbart — now being led again by Steve Bannon, who left the White House staff just last Friday — was unpersuaded. Bannon had backed proposals to use private contractors in lieu of troops to fight the war. "What does victory in Afghanistan look like?" a headline there blared as Trump prepared to speak. "Washington doesn't know." 

The headline below quoted Trump from 2013: "We should leave immediately. ... No more wasted lives."

In his speech, Trump said he was lifting restrictions on commanders in the field imposed by the Obama administration and increasing pressure on Pakistan to stop providing safe haven to militant groups along its border. He already had authorized Defense Secretary James Mattis to increase troops levels, a step Mattis had delayed implementing until the administration agreed on a broader strategy.

Trump outlined that strategy and its rationale Monday night, though he said he wouldn't discuss specific troop levels or deadlines.

The engagement reflects a sharp turn by Trump since the day four years ago when then-President Obama outlined a security accord his administration had hammered out with the Afghan government. "Do not allow our very stupid leaders to sign a deal that keeps us in Afghanistan through 2024-with all costs by U.S.A.," Trump tweeted that morning. "MAKE AMERICA GREAT!"

That afternoon, he posted another tweet: "We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let's get out!"

At rallies and in interviews last year, Trump described the war as a quagmire and argued that the money the United States was spending there — more than $25 billion a year — could better be invested at home.

Even so, the war in Afghanistan was a largely forgotten issue during the campaign. As Peter Beinert noted in The Atlantic in May, Trump didn't mention Afghanistan in his convention acceptance speech, during his three debates with Hillary Clinton, in his major campaign foreign-policy address last fall in Youngstown, Ohio, in his Inaugural address, or in his speech to a Joint Session of Congress. 

More: Mike Pence: Donald Trump's new American strategy for Afghanistan will undo past failures

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Like it or not, though, Afghanistan on Monday was the topic of Trump's first prime-time, nationally televised address since the speech to Congress in February. He undoubtedly would have preferred that distinction go to a pitch for one of his signature priorities, something like overhauling the tax code or building a wall along the Mexican border.

But for a trio of presidents, the Afghanistan war has proved to be impossible to ignore, or to end. As appealing as withdrawing U.S. forces might seem to be, it would likely mean that the pro-American government would fall and the power of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State would spread. 

The sanctuary Afghanistan provided for al-Qaeda forces behind the 9/11 attacks was the reason Bush and NATO allies invaded it in the first place, but the conflict was never completely won as Bush turned to the invasion of Iraq. Obama, who called Afghanistan the "good war," ordered a surge of U.S. forces but also set a timeline for their withdrawal.

Now the peak of about 100,000 U.S. forces in 2010 and 2011 has dropped to about 8,400. Mattis now has the authority to raise that by another 3,900 troops.

Trump has the considerable asset of expertise among the retired generals who are now among his most trusted aides: Mattis led an expeditionary brigade in Afghanistan and later commanded U.S. forces across the Mideast. National security adviser H.R. McMaster served as the top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has a more personal tie to the conflict: His son, a Marine, was killed by a landmine while serving there in 2010.

Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign-policy analyst at the Brookings Institution and co-author of Toughing it Out in Afghanistan, praised the troop increase, saying it should enable small teams of U.S. advisers to go into the field again with Afghan forces. But he said the realistic goal at this point should be simply to turn the momentum toward increased government control of territory, not winning the sort of victory that would bring all U.S. troops home.

"I believe it's going to take quite a while," O'Hanlon said in an interview. "I think we'll have to have several thousand troops there indefinitely – past the Trump presidency."

If so, from a third president to a fourth.