If militaristic words could win wars, President Trump would be one of the greatest conquerors in history — a combination of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon — rather than the hedonist who cited bone spurs to avoid service in Vietnam. He was at it again on Monday. During a White House meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Trump said: “If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week. I just don’t want to kill 10 million people. Does that make sense to you? I don’t want to kill 10 million people. I have plans on Afghanistan that, if I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth. It would be gone. It would be over in — literally, in 10 days. And I don’t want to do — I don’t want to go that route.”
Khan’s response in the official White House transcript is priceless: “Mm-hmm.” Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, immediately asked for “clarification.” I doubt the White House will have anything useful to say, but I’m happy to help.
Trump is channeling his inner Curtis LeMay. This was the Air Force general, and later George Wallace’s running mate, who is said to have proposed ending the Vietnam War by bombing the North Vietnamese “back into the Stone Age.” It has been folk wisdom ever since, among folks who know nothing of counterinsurgency, that the United States can always use airpower to win wars and that only a misplaced liberal humanitarianism prevents it from doing so.
This ignores the reality that, as the New York Times notes, “America dropped three times more ordnance over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia than all sides did during World War II” — and yet we still lost the war. Guerrillas, such as the Viet Cong or the Taliban, don’t have factories or tank formations that can be targeted from the air. Their strength is that they blend into the civilian population. So if you drop a lot of bombs, you wind up killing a lot of innocent people — and not winning the war. In Afghanistan, the Taliban end strength is usually estimated at 20,000 to 30,000 fighters. If you kill 10 million Afghans, you wind up killing 9,970,000 innocent people — and thus committing a war crime — without defeating the Taliban, whose leadership is in Pakistan.
But our Afghan allies shouldn’t worry that their country will be pulverized by Trump. Much more likely is that they will be abandoned by Trump. All of this tough talk is simply a cover for Trump to conclude a peace deal that would result in a U.S. pullout — and a likely Taliban takeover in Kabul.
This helps to explain Trump’s transparently insincere flattery of Pakistan. As he said, “We’re working with Pakistan and others to extricate ourselves.” So it was that last week Trump crowed: “After a ten year search, the so-called ‘mastermind’ of the Mumbai Terror attacks has been arrested in Pakistan. Great pressure has been exerted over the last two years to find him!” In fact, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed has been living in plain sight and has been arrested — and released — multiple times. This is part of the charade that Islamabad plays: It both sponsors and fights terrorism, depending on whatever is most advantageous at that moment. Trump called out Pakistan last year when he tweeted: “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools.” Yet on Monday, he was claiming, “Pakistan never lies,” thereby confirming Pakistan’s estimation of our leaders.
Why would Trump reverse himself so completely and unconvincingly? Trump always wants to tell whomever he is talking to whatever that person wants to hear. This is also why he volunteered to mediate the Kashmir dispute, while falsely claiming that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to do that. The Indian government had to set him straight: third-party mediation is Pakistan’s demand, not India’s. Trump just committed diplomatic malpractice of a high order. After his trade war with India, his blundering into the Kashmir conflict further alienates an important country whose friendship the United States needs to counter the rise of China. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had cultivated India; Trump is undoing their achievement with a few ignorant words.
Trump is incapable of seeing the big picture and unwilling to listen to advisers who do. He is focused on a pullout from Afghanistan, and he is convinced that if he flatters Pakistan, it will make it possible for the United States to exit “with honor,” as Richard M. Nixon said of the Vietnam War. U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is aiming to conclude peace talks by September, even though the Taliban refuses to lay down its arms or even talk directly with representatives of the Afghan government. Pakistan has an interest in facilitating an American exit from Afghanistan: This would allow its proxies, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, to take over. But as usual, Trump has no idea he’s being played. The sucker thinks he’s the con man.