So it seems we’re soon going to see another major test of how much of an America First-er on foreign policy President Trump really is: Will he or won’t he withdraw the U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan if he can strike an acceptable deal with that country’s Taliban insurgents?
Globalists across the political spectrum – that is, supporters of America’s pre-Trump decades of seeking to address foreign policy challenges through various forms of active engagement in foreign affairs around the world – and especially conservative globalists, are awfully skeptical, to say the least, and they have numerous understandable and specific reasons. One that stands out: Why should anyone trust the Taliban to keep the promise that the President is seeking – a pledge to ensure that no part of Afghanistan left under its effective control by any agreement to end or even suspend the conflict between it and the Afghan government becomes a terrorist base once again.
After all, the Taliban was the group that permitted Al Qaeda to use such territories as safe havens from which to plan and train for the September 11 terrorist attacks. A U.S. invasion and nearly twenty years of ongoing military operations have clearly played a major role in ensuring that no September 11 repeats have taken place, or at least strikes emanating from Afghanistan. And there’s no sign of any ebbing in the Taliban’s violent, anti-American nature. In addition, similar American-led and assisted operations against ISIS have prevented that group from creating safe havens in Iraq and Syria large enough to possess September 11-like potential.
All in all, therefore, such interventions look like a resounding success for the idea that defeating terrorists “over there” is the best guarantee that they won’t do any harm “over here.” And there’s compelling evidence that the President has bought into this argument.
As he told Fox News talk show host Tucker Carlson in an early July interview:
“…I would like to just get out [of Afghanistan]. The problem is, it just seems to be a lab for terrorists. It seems — I call it the Harvard of terrorists.
“When you look at the World Trade Center, they were trained. They didn’t — by the way, they attacked the wrong country. They didn’t come from Iraq, all right. They came from various other countries.
“But they all formed in Afghanistan, and it’s probably because it’s at the base of so many countries, but they all formed and it’s rough mountains and you get a lot of — you know, you get a lot of good hiding places.
“But I would leave very strong intelligence there. You have to watch because they do — you know, okay, I’ll give you a tough one. If you were in my position and a great looking central casting and we have great generals, a great central casting general walks up to your office, I say, ‘We’re getting out.’ ‘Yes, sir. We’ll get out. Yes, sir.’
“I’ll say, ‘What do you think of that?’ ‘Sir, I’d rather attack them over there, then attack them in our land.’ In other words, them coming here. That’s always a very tough decision, you know, with what happened with the World Trade Center, et cetera et cetera.
“When they say that, you know, no matter how you feel, and you and I feel pretty much very similar. But when you’re standing there, and you have some really talented military people saying, ‘I’d rather attack them over there than have them hit us over here and fight them on our land.’ It’s something you always have to think about.”
But what the President surprisingly seems to forget is that the September 11 terrorists were able to come “over here” not only because they were able to organize in Afghanistan, but because American border security was so unforgivably lax. This description of that situation comes from a group strongly on the restrictionist side of the immigration debate (as am I). But the evidence presented of visa overstays and examples of other hijackers being in the country illegally when they launched the attacks is highly specific and comparably convincing.
Further, then-U.S. Representative Candice S. Miller, a Republican from Michigan and former chair of the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, stated at hearings in 2012 that “more than 36 visa overstayers have been convicted of terrorism- related charges since 2001.”
As I’ve written previously, tightening border security enough to quell the terrorist threat completely is no small task. At the same time, it should also be clear that stepped up border security measures, along with intensified domestic counter-terrorism activities, have played some role in not only preventing more September 11 attacks but in greatly reducing the number of attacks from jihadist-inspired homegrown lone wolves.
Just as important, whenever making policy seriously, and therefore determining priorities and thus allocation of resources, the question always needs to be asked which of any competing approaches is more promising. In the case of anti-terrorism approaches, this challenge boils down to whether the nation is best advised to focus on further improving border security (a situation over which it has relatively great control) or on continuing to police the terminally dysfunctional Middle East (a situation over which is has relatively little control).
Given that the Taliban is still a force to be reckoned with in Afghanistan after eighteen years of fighting the U.S. military and forces from allied countries plus those of Afghan governments in Kabul; and given new Pentagon claims that ISIS is already “solidifying” its “insurgent capabilities in Iraq” and “resurging in Syria,” the case for a domestic, i.e., America First-type focus instead of continuing to play whackamole in the Middle East looks stronger than ever. And that’s the case whether America’s generals look like they come from central casting or not.