Trump and Afghanistan

A recent report in the Wall Street Journal states that the Trump administration is considering the withdrawal of American military forces from Afghanistan. No official word on this from the President, but there are indications that the White House so far has not approved a Pentagon request to send nearly four thousand more troops to the war. Some in the administration apparently are looking at the option of getting out altogether. Military withdrawal is the right choice for Afghanistan, but it needs to be combined with a diplomatic strategy for achieving a negotiated peace.

After 16 years of frustration in a war we are “not winning,” to quote Secretary of Defense Mattis, it is clear that no military victory will be possible in Afghanistan. If the United States and its allies could not defeat the Taliban in earlier years with more than 150,000 troops on the ground, trying to fight on now with a much smaller force is folly.

Military disengagement by itself is not a solution, however. Heading for the exits without a political and diplomatic plan for transition could make matters worse. In the absence of U.S. support, the Kabul regime would likely collapse, leading to a violent struggle for power and a potential repeat of the bloody civil war of the 1990s.

If Afghanistan is to be saved from further violence and chaos, the United States must join with other countries in a concerted diplomatic effort to end the conflict and negotiate an end to hostilities and an open political process leading to a power sharing agreement among the Kabul government, the Taliban and regional leaders.

The Wall Street Journal article reports that the Trump administration is planning to engage China, India and Pakistan in a regional peace plan. Russia, China and Pakistan have started trilateral talks. These are potential steps in the right direction, but an effective diplomatic strategy will require a much broader and more inclusive process under UN mandate.

Pakistan certainly must be involved, and Iran as well. India’s interests are also heavily at stake.

The goal of a political and diplomatic process would be to guarantee that Afghanistan is not used as a base for terrorist attacks against the United States or other states. This has always been and remains the primary U.S. and international strategic objective.

The negotiation process could also attempt to facilitate an Afghan-led political process for creating a new more inclusive and accountable system of governance in the country. A parallel diplomatic process will be needed among neighboring states to support the peace process and refrain from external interference.

As part of the bargaining process, Washington must be prepared to withdraw its forces and halt military operations. This is both incentive to the insurgents to accept a ceasefire and a message to Kabul that it must be prepared to restructure the government and share power. In this sense, the administration’s consideration of military withdrawal could suggest flexibility on a critically important and delicate issue.

Many in Washington have been skeptical of military withdrawal because it could spark further violence and instability and reduce U.S. political leverage. That might be true if Trump simply withdraws troops without seeking political and diplomatic agreements in the process. The better approach would be to link troop withdrawals to Taliban and Afghan government support for a ceasefire, security assurances against terrorism and a more open political process within the county. If this were to work, U.S. and international political objectives in Afghanistan would be met.

Admittedly the odds against such a strategy succeeding are enormous, but a concerted attempt to seek a negotiated solution at least should be attempted. Unlike the war option, a ceasefire and diplomatic process would lower the level of violence and reduce civilian casualties, which have increased to record levels.

A negotiated agreement for Afghanistan will need large-scale international support and third party security assurances. The record of other peace processes indicates that comprehensive UN missions help to enhance implementation success. Also necessary are third party security assurances to monitor and support ceasefire arrangements and protect those who engage in the political process. Taliban leaders have said in the past they would support a Muslim peacekeeping mission, which if authorized through the UN could include forces from Indonesia, Malaysia, and other countries.

The willingness to withdraw US troops could be key to setting a peace process in motion, but only if it is linked to a major diplomatic initiative. If Trump is serious about trying to end America’s longest war, he should keep the idea of withdrawal in play and use it along with the promise of continued American political and economic support to bargain for a diplomatic solution.

I had a powerful emotional experience the other night as I visited the new memorial in downtown South Bend commemorating the moment in June 1964 when Notre Dame’s President, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, joined hands with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the historic rally for civil rights in Chicago’s Soldier Field. That moment was captured in a famous photo that now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington and is displayed ubiquitously at Notre Dame and beyond.


Courtesy of Notre Dame Archives

The memorial is a striking sculpture by local artist Tuck Langland that presents the two great civil rights icons crossing hands as they sing “We Shall Overcome.” The City of South Bend and our progressive Mayor Pete Buttigieg unveiled the statue at a public event last week.


South Bend Tribune Photo / BECKY MALEWITZ

Unable to attend the ceremony during the week, I walked over to the memorial Saturday evening on my way to a local restaurant. The fading light of dusk gave a special luster to the bronze. I stepped slowly toward the statue, feeling the spiritual power of the image and its historical meaning. As I stood there alone on the sidewalk, holding back tears of joy and admiration, a car slowly pulled up and stopped in front of the statue.

A distinguished looking older African American gentleman in a suit stepped out of his elegant new car and walked up to the statue. We stood there for a few moments in silence. Then he turned to me and said “if they hadn’t assassinated Dr. King and the Kennedy’s think of how much more progress there would be than what we have now.” I nodded and shared the story of Fr. Hesburgh receiving a call that June day so long ago, Dr. King asking him to come to Soldier Field. Hesburgh did not equivocate. He asked, ‘what time do you need me?’ and got into his car and drove to Chicago. “That’s the kind of commitment to justice we need today,” I uttered. He nodded, and we shook hands.

As I strolled away, the tears poured down. The visit to the memorial had felt like a religious experience, a moment of redemption and inspiration. I especially sensed the spiritual presence of Fr. Hesburgh, whom I had the privilege of knowing and who founded the Kroc Institute where I proudly serve.

The sculpture has the hands of Hesburgh and King reaching out, inviting all of us to grasp our hands with theirs in the continuing struggle for justice and human rights.


The latest North Korean missile test this past weekend was more successful than many previous attempts, and raises anew the question of how the US and other governments should respond. An effective strategy is needed for countering the growing threat from Pyongyang, as I discuss in my recent piece in Huffington Post.

The key to success is partnering with China. Beijing has all the cards in this game. No strategy can work without its full cooperation. The US and China have similar objectives on the core strategic issues at stake. Both want a nuclear-weapon free Korean peninsula, a halt to further nuclearization, and stability in the region. China is opposed to regime change, and it has encouraged and benefited from Pyongyang’s steps toward market reform. The US has no strategic interest in who rules in North Korea so long as the regime is not building nuclear weapons and missiles that threaten us or our allies in the region.

The diplomatic package I offer is spelled out in the article. Prepare a tough new UN Security Council sanctions resolution, imposing additional measures as recommended by the UN sanctions committee panel of experts and others, but suspend action on those measures to allow for diplomatic engagement.

For the US and China, acting on behalf of the six-party framework, the diplomatic model should be the 2015 Iran deal, and also the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, which froze the main part of Pyongyang’s nuclear program for about eight years.

Combine the threat of new sanctions with an offer to lift sanctions and provide a package of security, economic and diplomatic inducements. These would be contingent on North Korea taking specific verified steps toward halting the further development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capability.

Military threats or sanctions without incentives have not worked in the past and are unlikely to succeed now. A creative new approach is needed that partners with China in addressing North Korea’s security and economic needs as inducements for freezing its nuclear and missile programs.

Fifty years ago this week, speaking at New York’s famed Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered one of his most historic and powerful addresses, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” In his remarks Dr. King declared his support for the growing movement against the war in Vietnam and explained why it is necessary to link the struggles against racism, poverty and militarism.

Dr. King was vilified for speaking out against the war. The New York Times, Washington Post and many other newspapers editorialized against him, urging him to stay in his lane and focus on civil rights. An angry President, Lyndon Johnson cut off King’s access to the White House. Leaders of established civil rights organizations groups rebuked him.

Dr. King understood that he would pay a price, but he felt compelled to speak out. He could see that militarism and war abroad were undermining the struggle against poverty and racism at home. He watched the Johnson administration’s antipoverty program “broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war.” He knew that America would never invest the necessary funds to help the poor as long as the war in Vietnam continued to draw resources “like some demonic, destructive suction tube.”

Dr. King described the war in Vietnam as “a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” an arrogance and indifference to strivings for freedom around the world, a pattern of military interventionism and support for reactionary regimes that suppress justice. He warned that a nation continuously spending more money on the military than on social uplift “is approaching spiritual death.”

Today we face similar challenges. The White House proposes to increase military spending by $54 billion, while slashing spending for social programs at home and reducing U.S. support for development assistance and diplomacy abroad.

The United States remains bogged down in a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan. U.S. forces are being sent back to Iraq. American troops are operating in support of foreign forces in Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Libya. Our warplanes and drone aircraft are conducting bombing raids across the region.

The President calls for “massively” increasing nuclear weapons capability. Plans are proceeding to spend $100 billion to rebuild hundreds of land-based nuclear missiles—despite the advice of former Defense Secretary William Perry that these weapons can be safely scrapped as an unnecessary and dangerous relic of the cold war.

Like King before us we are called today to break our silence on the madness and folly of a national policy that prioritizes weapons and war, while neglecting those in need here at home and abroad. As we speak out against war and militarism, it is important to remember another lesson from Dr. King, that our dissent is motivated by patriotism—as Dr. King said to an antiwar rally soon after his address at Riverside Church:

I oppose the war in Viet Nam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. There can be no great disappointment where there is no great love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism and militarism. … Those of us who love peace must organize as affectively as the war hawks. … We must work unceasingly to lift this nation that we love to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness.

Amidst the darkness of Washington politics, a recent bright spot was the letter to Congress signed by more than 120 former senior military officers urging support for diplomacy and development. The letter is an encouraging sign of the growing recognition within the military of the need for greater civilian efforts to achieve international security. Hopefully it will help to counter the Trump administration’s dangerous proposal to slash State Department and USAID funding by 37 per cent.

The signers of the letter are three and four star generals and admirals, representing all branches of the military. Their letter expresses “our strong conviction that elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defense are critical to keeping America safe.” The United States faces many challenges that “do not have military solutions,” the signers note.  Referring to the State Department, USAID, the Millennium Development Corporation and the Peace Corps, the letter states that the military “needs strong civilian partners in the battle against the drivers of extremism– lack of opportunity, insecurity, injustice, and hopelessness.” The signers urge adequate funding of the government’s International Affairs Budget and conclude, “Now is not the time to retreat.”

This statement from former commanders is an affirmation of what Lisa Schirch and many others in the peacebuilding community have been saying for decades. Genuine human security requires diplomacy and development in addition to defense. Diplomatic dialogue can reduce political tensions and help nations and groups settle their differences without violence. Conflict prevention is primarily a civilian task, built on sound economic and social foundations, rooted in systems of inclusive and accountable governance.

From the military standpoint this is a matter of self-interest. Officers know that military means alone cannot defeat terrorist insurgency. They do not want to risk the lives of their soldiers on impossible missions.

What good will it do, for example, if ISIS is driven out of Mosul, but there are no diplomatic efforts to address the needs of aggrieved Sunni communities and no help is available for the massive reconstruction efforts needed to restore shattered local economies?

Military commanders know that bringing greater stability and security to troubled regions requires greater State Department capabilities and well-funded development programs that are coordinated with private sector engagement to create jobs and economic opportunity.

The military gets the message. Now we need to try to drive home that message to the political establishment of Washington.

This week President Trump will receive a preliminary plan from the Pentagon for defeating ISIS. Early indications are that the strategy will focus mostly on military options and may include a proposal for sending additional U.S. troops into Syria. More air strikes in Iraq and Syria are also likely to be included. Meanwhile President Trump has ordered a “massive rebuilding” of the military, and the Republican majority in Congress is preparing a Pentagon budget boost.

On the campaign trail candidate Trump was skeptical of military solutions in the Middle East, but as President he seems to be following the same failed policies of his predecessors. After more than 15 years of the ‘war on terror’, we should know by now that this fight cannot be won by military means. “We cannot kill our way out of this war,” said the chief of Air Force intelligence recently.

The challenge of defeating ISIS and related groups requires a different approach and wider set of policies. Instead of relying on the military for advice, the President should convene a broader group, including civilian peacebuilding and governance experts, to develop a holistic strategy that addresses the underlying causes of terrorist violence.

Empirical evidence confirms that war is not an effective means of countering terrorist organizations. A 2008 RAND Corporation study shows that terrorist groups usually end through political processes and effective law enforcement, not the use of military force. An examination of 268 terrorist organizations that ended after a period of nearly forty years found that the primary factors accounting for their demise were participation in political processes (43 percent) and effective policing (40 percent). Military force accounted for the end of terrorist groups in only 7 percent of the cases examined.

Alternative strategies for countering terrorist violence are well known and have been articulated by the United Nations and many other organizations. The core requirement is an accurate assessment of the political roots of the conflict. In the case of the struggle against ISIS, the problem is not that Sunni Arabs ‘hate America’ (many of them joined with the U.S. in battling al Qaida in the 2006 Iraq Awakening), but rather that they have been suppressed and marginalized by political leaders in Baghdad and Damascus. The solution is to work for equitable political power sharing arrangements in both countries.

Success in the struggle against extremism also requires greater efforts to build effective and accountable institutions of governance. Regimes in the region are deeply corrupt, lack the capacity to deliver basic goods and services, and offer few if any avenues for citizen participation. The U.S. military has long recognized that the political function is key to effective counterinsurgency. The priority task is to help local governments build accountable institutions of governance that ameliorate social grievances and provide pathways for political inclusion and participation to all major stakeholders. These are long-term challenges that require sustained international support for good governance and economic and social development.

An emphasis on addressing grievances and improving governance does not obviate the need for security protection. International police and intelligence operations are essential for preventing terrorist plots. Cooperative policing between the United States and other countries has successfully interdicted many plots, saving thousands of lives. International sanctions and financial restrictions are also helping to isolate and weaken terrorist networks.

The strategic framework against ISIS requires a two-level approach: preventive measures that ameliorate the grievances and conditions that give rise to terrorism, and protective efforts to guard against attacks. If the President is serious about defeating ISIS he will need a bigger toolkit and a new approach that emphasizes political solutions and police protection more than the use of military force.



Millions of us have marched and protested in recent weeks against the divisive and dangerous policies of the Trump administration. The Women’s March of January 21 brought more than 700,000 people to Washington and sparked protests all across the country. More than four million people participated in demonstrations that day, making it the largest protest action in U.S. history. Since then there have been countless rallies and protests at airports and in town squares against the administration’s immigration ban, and a growing number of actions at Congressional offices to prevent the gutting of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The concerns of this new progressive movement are many—human rights, social justice, religious tolerance, climate care, peace, women’s rights—but the unifying goal is a desire to roll back the extremist agenda of the new administration. This is a goal that many Americans support. The President’s approval ratings are historically low, and with every new Executive Order or tweet he seems to alienate more people. Opposition groups are gaining members and financial support. The ACLU received a record $24 million in contributions in one weekend after the immigration ban was announced.

The strategic mission of the movement in the months ahead is to continue building opposition to the administration’s policies and to drive a wedge between the White House and Congressional Republicans.

Already we’ve seen some successes. Federal judges have temporarily blocked the immigration ban. Green card holders won’t be prevented from returning to the U.S., and Iraqis who served as translators for American forces will be exempted from the ban. Proposed executive orders to reopen CIA ‘black sites’ and authorize discrimination against women and LGBTQ people in the name of ‘religious freedom’ have been shelved for now.

Splits have started to appear in Republican ranks. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and other Republican leaders have criticized the Muslim immigration ban. Republican members of Congress are nervous about the backlash they will face if they pull the rug out from under the 20 million people who gained health coverage through the ACA.

Achieving further success will require maintaining the peaceful spirit and demeanor of the Women’s March and avoiding actions that could turn away those we seek to attract.

We need to apply the lessons of empirical research on civil resistance. Nonviolent movements are more effective than violent campaigns. Political success comes from building mass participation and inducing loyalty shifts among the adversary’s supporters. Tactics are effective to the degree that they draw large numbers of people to the cause and undermine the legitimacy and moral authority of the opponent.

This is not a time for the kind of anarchist action that occurred in Berkeley last week. Using fire bombs and throwing fire crackers at police feeds the Trump narrative and damages the credibility of the progressive movement. They alienate people who might otherwise support the movement. Studies show that violent action often provokes government repression and can be counterproductive politically. The same is true today.

This is not to say that disruption and civil disobedience will have no place in the current struggle. Social change often requires disrupting business as usual and generating what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “creative tension.” If the Trump administration starts to come after the undocumented, many of us will put our bodies on the line and engage in nonviolent civil disobedience. If federal authorities want to detain or deport our neighbors, they will have to arrest us first.

As we resist the Trump agenda we should maintain nonviolent discipline and a sense of respect and caring for others. Our goal is to protect the vulnerable, and we should act in the spirit of charity and love that is appropriate to that purpose. We must attract ever larger numbers of people to our cause and build the social force and political support necessary to stop the Trump onslaught.