European allies see the two sides of Trump

By Noah Barkin
ReutersMay 28, 2017
NATO Allies Still Nervous After Trump’s Visit
NATO Allies Still Nervous After Trump’s Visit
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By Noah Barkin

TAORMINA, Italy (Reuters) – In Sicily, Donald Trump listened attentively during complex G7 debates over trade and climate change, smiled for the cameras, and for the most part refrained from provocative tweets.

In Brussels, he bashed NATO partners for not spending more on defense, shoved the prime minister of Montenegro and renewed his attacks on Germany’s trade surplus with the United States.

America’s allies witnessed the two sides of Trump on his first foreign trip as U.S. president, a nine-day tour that began with sword dancing in Saudi Arabia and vague pledges in Israel to deliver Middle East peace.

As Trump headed home, European officials were left with mixed feelings: relief that he had been patient enough to listen to their arguments and unsettled by a Jekyll-and-Hyde figure who is still finding his way on the big policy issues.

“It all fits with his strategic ambiguity approach to life,” said Julianne Smith of the Centre for a New American Security. “It may do wonders when dealing with adversaries. But it doesn’t work when dealing with allies,” she said.

Other leaders of the Group of Seven nations had viewed with trepidation their summit, held at a cliff-top hotel overlooking the Mediterranean, after four preparatory meetings failed to clear up differences with the Trump administration on trade, how to deal with Russia and climate change.

But in the end, officials said, the result was better than they had feared.

The final communique acknowledged a split between the United States and its six partners over honoring the 2015 Paris accord on climate change. That followed a debate with Trump that German Chancellor Angela Merkel described as “very dissatisfying”.

However on trade, Trump bowed to pressure from allies to retain a pledge to fight protectionism. And on Russia, he did not insist on removing – as some allies had feared – the threat of additional sanctions for Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine.

“I found him very willing to engage, very curious, with an ability and desire to ask questions and to learn from all his interlocutors,” said Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, the G7 summit’s host.


Still, there was irritation at Trump’s refusal to show his hand on the Paris agreement to curb carbon emissions. Near the end of the summit, he tweeted teasingly that he would make a decision on Paris next week, leaving delegations to scratch their heads about why he could not commit in Taormina.

The most critical words were reserved for Trump’s appearance at NATO headquarters in Brussels, which was described as a “disaster” by more than one European official.

With the leaders of America’s NATO partners standing like school children behind him, Trump upbraided them for not spending more on defense and repeated the charge that some members owed “massive amounts of money” from past years – even though allied contributions are voluntary.

Most disturbingly for allies, Trump did not personally affirm his commitment to Article 5, NATO’s mutual defense doctrine, after pre-trip signals from the White House that he would do just that. Trump also failed to mention Russia, which remains NATO’s raison d’etre in the eyes of most Europeans.

It was a speech that reminded some of Trump’s doom-laden inauguration address in January, one that seemed written for the hardest of his hard-core domestic audience. “Proud of @realDonaldTrump for telling NATO deadbeats to pay up or shut up,” former Republican governor Mike Huckabee tweeted in response.

Trump’s appearance in Brussels was particularly galling to the Germans, who after months of painstaking relationship building with Trump – including Merkel’s invitation to his daughter Ivanka for a G20 women’s summit in Berlin – found themselves under attack from him on two fronts.

Before heading to NATO, Trump criticized Germany’s trade surplus in a private meeting with senior European Union officials.

“If Trump really wants to go down a path of isolation, it will only speed up China’s rise to the top,” one senior German official grumbled.


Beyond the rhetoric, Trump’s body language also confounded his hosts. He muscled aside Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic as NATO leaders walked into the alliance’s new headquarters for a photo session.

And he engaged in two alpha-male handshakes with France’s new 39-year-old President Emmanuel Macron, who seemed to get the better of Trump on both occasions.

The macho posturing in Europe contrasted to the images, a few days earlier, of Trump and his team swaying, swords in hand, with the absolute rulers of Saudi Arabia at a lavish welcome ceremony given by King Salman.

Summing up the tour on Saturday, Trump’s advisers seemed most enthused about the Saudi leg, where he clinched a $110 billion arms deal and forged what one aide described as a “personal bond” with the king.

“The president was able to make some of the most amazing deals that have really been made by any administration ever,” enthused his economic adviser Gary Cohn.

Daniela Schwarzer, research director at the German Council of Foreign Relations in Berlin, said the trip had confirmed Trump’s “zero-sum game” view of the world in which you are either a winner or a loser and relationships are transactional.

“His rhetoric and actions suggest he does not consider it a priority to build good and engaging relations with allies the U.S. so far considered its most important ones,” she said.

(Writing by Noah Barkin; Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer; editing by David Stamp)

The Afghan security problem

The Taliban is now stronger than at any point since the international mission to Afghanistan began 16 years ago. The US and NATO are considering sending more troops to stabilize the security situation.

Afghanistan Königspalast Darul Aman (DW/S. Petersmann)

A quiet side street in Kabul is ringed with trees. The Afghan capital is teeming with heavily armed personnel of all kinds, from military to private security forces, but on this street nothing appears amiss. Three young girls in summery clothing play outside. A white-bearded man sits cross-legged on a red carpet in his bakery. He passes fresh bread out of the window to a customer. The two men joke with each other, laughing.

Springtime in Kabul can be magical, and the little street here suggests nothing of the terrorism and fear that has become a part of daily life. There have been seven major attacks around the city this year, and the abduction industry is booming. Recently, an Afghan guard and a German relief worker were killed in what appears to have been a failed kidnapping. A bombing at the start of May killed eight civilians. The relentless violence defies the city’s wisespread security apparatus.

Afghanistan Abdul Satar (DW/S. Petersmann)Kabul carpenter, Abdul Satar

Deceptive silence

The seemingly peaceful side street is part of a Kabul neighborhood that used to be home to many international aid workers. Many of them left at the same time as the international strike force. Abdul Satar, a 54-year-old carpenter from the neighborhood, earns 200 euros a month. That income needs to support his wife and seven children.

“I am afraid for my wife and children,” he said. “In Kabul, there is always the risk of being in a bombing.” He does not believe that more foreign troops will solve the problem. “Afghanistan must solve its own problems.”

His boss, Nazir Ahmad, nodded in agreement. With most international forces gone, the economy that built up around their presence evaporated, and his business is suffering. “What did NATO bring us?” he asked. “At one stage, there were more than 130,000 foreign troops in the country and the war kept on going, anyway.”

Today, that number is down to about 15,000, mostly from the US, who are responsible for counterterrorism operations. Remaining NATO troops are charged with training the country’s 350,000 own security personnel. The divided training and combat missions have become  intertwined as the security situation has worsened.

Afghanistan Schreinermeister Nazir Ahmad (DW/S. Petersmann)Master carpenter, Nazir Ahmad

Unemployment and discord

Afghanistan is in turmoil, and civilians keep getting killed – nearly 11,500 dead or wounded last year, according to the United Nations. Of the country’s 34 provinces, 31 are under attack. In the first four months of 2017, 90,000 Afghans became internally displaced, adding to the 600,000 in 2016. The situation has further deteriorated this year since Iran and Pakistan have deported up to 200,000 refugees. Many find themselves in Kabul, which the city is unable to cope with.

The Afghan government is to blame, Ahmad said. “They fight over money and power, rather than looking after people.” His neighbor, Nurullah Tarkan, said poverty and unemployment are the greatest threats. “When people can work, they don’t fight.”

Afghanistan Parlament (DW/S. Petersmann)Afghanistan’s parliament building, behind a defensive wall

Country of warlords

Since the American-led invasion in 2001, Afghanistan has become a country of warring factions. Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum left for Turkey to avoid kidnapping, torture and rape charges of his political rivals. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, known as the “Butcher of Kabul”, had been on a UN terrorism list until a peace agreement was reached that will allow him to hold a political office in the future.

Fraud tainted the 2014 presidential election and the 2015 parliamentary elections never took place. The political vacuum has been exploited by the Taliban and as many as 20 international terror groups, including the so-called “Islamic State”, as well as foreign powers such as China and Saudi Arabia.

Security problems

“Foreign troops are not a solution to the situation anymore,” said Maulawi Mohammad Qasim Halimi, a former Taliban official. “Foreign troops have 99 percent of the people against them. Afghan soldiers have far fewer.”

US forces put Halimi in the Bagram prison for a year after the Taliban fell. Today he is a part of the government, serving as spokesman for the Afghanistan Islamic religious council. “Training and advising are ok,” he added. “But foreign combat troops don’t help us. We have had a terrible experience with them. They are always killing civilians.”

Afghanistan Maulawi Mohammad Qasim Halimi (DW/S. Petersmann)Maulawi Mohammad Qasim Halimi, spokesman for the Afghanistan Islamic religious council

Political vision missing

He declined to comment on internal government disagreement regarding dealing with former Taliban members, but he said most would rather negotiate than fight, given what he knows from his own history with the Taliban. However, today the Taliban is itself split, suffering from internal power struggles and external pressure.

Both the Taliban and the Afghan state are dependent on international assistance. A military solution has failed, but a political one has yet to firmly develop. National and international agreement on how the country can reach a peaceful future remains elusive, but for the girls playing outside and residents like Abdul Satar, it is necessary to ensure that terror and violence are not lurking around the corner to destroy the quiet of their small street.

Watch video03:15

People in Kabul live with danger



Will Trump’s base stick with him?

Trump shifts: Flexibility, evolution or flip-flop?
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Trump shifts: Flexibility, evolution or flip-flop? 08:01

Story highlights

  • Alice Stewart: Idea that the base will abandon Trump for changing his stances is simplistic
  • Parts of the base are very happy with him and others are taking a wait-and-see attitude

Alice Stewart is a CNN political commentator and former communications director for Ted Cruz for President. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)A series of policy reversals by President Donald Trump has supporters and critics alike asking the question: Is the candidate who vowed to drain the swamp getting swamped in Washington? Those on the left say he’s abandoning his base and that in turn, they will abandon him. In other words: it’s about to get real for the reality star turned president.

Alice Stewart

But not so fast. Before you write off the base, you have to understand who the base is. Trump got the most primary votes of any Republican in history. He did that by expanding the GOP establishment vote to solidify support from three key groups: social conservatives, the “alt-right,” and the Rust Belt coalition. All of which are responding to the recent course corrections by the president.
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In a little over a week, Trump reversed on several key policy positions: he ordered missile strikes in Syria after opposing military action there for many years, he dropped his view that NATO is obsolete, he walked back the claim that China is a currency manipulator and indicated he is no longer certain he will replace Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen when her term expires next year.
Keep in mind, if voters thought that Trump’s tendency to change his positions was an unforgivable sin, he never would have won the GOP nomination and never would have been elected president.

Social conservatives

First, social conservatives have felt burned by the GOP over the past decade. They did not get their candidate of choice in 2008 or 2012, but the party relied on them to man phone banks, knock on doors and get out the vote in the general election.
While Trump was not the first choice for many of them, they quickly came to see him as a willing advocate. The Trump transition team brought them into the conversation and truly listened to them. In 2016, social conservatives no longer felt like a GOP afterthought.
Social conservatives wanted a Scalia-like Supreme Court justice and they got it with the confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch. For many, this was the single biggest factor in their support of the president.
These pro-life conservatives also wanted Trump to honor the anti-abortion message he campaigned on, which he did last week with the signing of an order allowing states to withhold federal money from abortion providers, including Planned Parenthood. Victory on these issues was like eating dessert before dinner for them; they got the sweet stuff they wanted and they didn’t have to wait. They are not troubled by recent head fakes by the President — they are playing long ball.


Secondly, the “alt-right” movement, viewed as anti-intervention and anti-multiculturalism, embraced candidate Trump’s populist isolationism message. The movement had lived largely online, but came out to campaign events and voting booths for Trump.
Many ardent supporters are now vocal opponents of Trump’s decision to order the missile strike against Syria. Some question whether he should have the nuclear codes if he’s making military decisions based on emotions. These people want a lot more, a lot faster from the administration.
Alt-right leaders are also up in arms over Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon losing his seat at the National Security table and rumors of Bannon’s departure due to infighting with the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. It’s not the end of the world if Bannon is shown the door, but it would be problematic with this portion of the Trump base.

Rust Belt

The third facet of Trump’s support is the Rust Belt coalition that voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but switched to Trump in 2016 because they saw him as the working man’s champion. The Rust Belt’s revenge turned blue states to red for Trump. Working-class voters in the nation’s heartland supported the President’s trade and economic message. These are not hard-core issue conservatives, but they like knowing their president is going to stick it to China and roll back burdensome federal regulations that stifle the economy.
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Trump must not forget his power base is the American worker. If he delivers on the economy, the Rust Belt coalition is not going anywhere.
The West Wing reversals are clearly ruffling some feathers in the base. Asked about the President’s shifting positions, White House press secretary Sean Spicer says it’s the various circumstances, not Trump, that have changed. He even made the dubious claim that “some cases or issues, are evolving towards the President’s position.”
Draining the swamp is an easy campaign slogan, but Trump is learning that successful governing is much more difficult than winning campaigns.

Tillerson skipping NATO meeting ‘a mistake’ that should be reversed

In a DW interview, ex-US NATO ambassador Ivo Daalder has called US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision to skip a NATO meeting an unprecedented mistake. He also explains how Tillerson is kept on a short leash.

China Ankunft US-Außenminister Rex Tillerson (Reuters/M. Schiefelbein)

DW: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will not attend a NATO foreign minister meeting in Brussels next month and instead participate in an expected meeting with the Chinese President at Donald Trump’s Florida residence. According to the US State Department, Tillerson will meet all but one minister from NATO countries at this week’s counterterrorism meeting instead. Does that suffice in your opinion or do you consider this a snub for NATO?

Ivo Daalder: I think it is a mistake. I very much hope that Secretary Tillerson will reevaluate this decision. If there is a date conflict, there are ways in which dates can be changed, so I very much hope there is an adjustment to this. That said the signal that is sent is not a good one. The idea that a secretary of state should skip a NATO ministerial is remarkable, indeed it is almost unprecedented. It happened on very, very, very rare occasions. Secretary [Hillary] Clinton missed a NATO ministerial when she broke her arm and there may have another occasion or two, but it’s rare. More importantly Secretary Tillerson has just met with Xi Jinping in Beijing. And not having a meeting at NATO with NATO foreign ministers six weeks before a NATO summit is truly unprecedented.

President Donald Trump himself during the campaign and since has sent very mixed messages about his commitment to NATO. While he repeatedly was very critical of the alliance, just a few days ago in his first meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel he said he supported NATO, but then qualified that again later via Twitter arguing that Germany owed some outstanding debt to NATO and the US. How does Tillerson not attending this NATO meeting fit into the developing broader US stance toward the alliance?

It doesn’t help in the effort to reassure all of our allies that the US takes its commitment to NATO seriously. As you mentioned, the campaign left many of our allies in Europe unsettled with the kind of language and statements coming out of candidate Trump. The administration since taking office has tried hard to reverse any suggestion that NATO is not a central part of American foreign policy. We have had Vice President [Mike] Pence not only travel to Munich and give a speech there reaffirming America’s strong and unequivocal commitment, but then traveling to Brussels for meetings with NATO’s secretary general. We have had Defense Secretary [James] Mattis’ first defense ministerial meeting in February and he then went to Munich to underscore the importance of NATO. Those were all good signs.

USA - Donald Trump trifft Angela Merkel (picture-alliance/newscom/UPI Photo/P. Benic)Trump failed to send a clear message about the White House position on NATO during Merkel’s visit

You mentioned the press conference with Angela Merkel on Friday; the tweet on Saturday morning which raised the stakes even further. Those were more in old campaign mode by the president. Secretary Tillerson had an opportunity to continue the efforts by Vice President Pence and Secretary Mattis to demonstrate that the United States is fully committed by going to his first NATO ministerial which again is there six weeks before a NATO summit. This is where all the big decisions get made and discussed for that summit and skipping that meeting sends the signal that the administration, or at least some of them, are not serious about the NATO commitment. That is deeply unfortunate. It will deeply unsettle further views in Europe about America’s commitment to NATO. And it is something that if it can be reversed should be reversed as soon as possible.

While not travelling to Brussels for the NATO meeting, Secretary Tillerson plans to visit Moscow shortly afterwards. What signal does that send?

Deutschland Ivo H. Daalder (imago/M. Schulz)Daalder served as US ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013

It sends a bad signal. The idea that the Secretary of State would visit Russia and skip a NATO ministerial – maybe the timing allows a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov who he already met in Bonn, which is fine. But the idea that you skip a NATO ministerial meeting and a week later go to Moscow sends the signal that somehow the relationships with Russia, China and the United States are more important than the relationship of the United States with its most important allies, who stood shoulder to shoulder with the US since 1949.

Let’s talk about Tillerson’s start as Secretary of State. President Trump plans huge cuts to the State Department and in an unusual move, Tillerson himself acknowledged that the budget of his department is not sustainable. He has also been criticized for not talking to the media, except one reporter from a conservative outlet, on his important Asia trip, and for still not getting his department fully staffed up. What is your sense of his tenure so far?

I think it has been shaky, but it is also the case that he is facing a daunting task. The fact that he doesn’t have a staff is not his fault, it is that the White House keeps on vetoing anybody who he is proposing including, remarkably, his choice for deputy who by all accounts had a very good meeting with President Trump. It certainly isn’t Rex Tillerson’s idea to cut the State Department spending by the amount that has been proposed – that’s a White House decision ultimately, not a decision by the State Department.

China Ankunft US-Außenminister Rex Tillerson (Reuters/M. Schiefelbein)Daalder: ‘It certainly isn’t Rex Tillerson’s idea to cut the State Department spending’

So he has been held on a very short leash on the two issues that matter tremendously for the effective running of foreign policy – people and money. I think it is too early six weeks in for him to be an effective secretary of state. He had a very good visit by all accounts to Asia. I think he is trying to find his sea legs in this department that has now been tossed in a huge storm because of the decisions by the White House to not staff it and to reduce the funding for it. That’s why it is even more important for him to show up at the kinds of meetings that secretaries of state generally show up, like the NATO ministerial.

Do you then think he can become an effective secretary of state under the difficult circumstances you described?

I think it’s early days and to write this off as a failed secretary of state would be unfair. I think we need to wait and see. Some of the decisions he has made are decisions I would not have made or his predecessors would not have made and he will have to live with them. The biggest problem he has at the moment is that the White House doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in the kind of diplomacy and the kind of activity that a State Department normally does. Let’s talk in a few months to see whether he has been able to overcome it.

Ivo Daalder served as US ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013. He is currently the President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


NATO opens regional center in Kuwait

NATO has opened its first regional center in the Gulf region. Meanwhile, Kuwait’s foreign minister is to make a rare visit to Iran to set up a “basis of dialogue” between Gulf Arab states and Tehran.

NATO Generalsekretär Jens Stoltenberg in Kuwait (picture-alliance/abaca/J. Abdulkhaleg)

Speaking in Kuwait City on Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he was “proud” to inaugurate NATO’s regional center in the Gulf state. On social media, he called the center’s potential “enormous.”

I was proud to inaugurate NATO’s Regional Centre in Kuwait today – a new home for the Alliance in the Gulf. Its potential is enormous.

Stoltenberg said that over the past year, NATO has trained hundreds of Iraqi officers in Jordan to better fight the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) extremist group, which he referred to by its alternative initials “ISIL.”


Pentagon: US affirms ‘unshakeable commitment’ to NATO

Amid criticism from President Donald Trump, Washington has vowed support for the NATO alliance. US Defense Secretary James Mattis has reached out to his EU counterparts, saying the US “always starts with Europe.” (24.01.2017)

Stoltenberg warns of spike in cyberattacks on NATO

“We are now extending our training and capacity-building efforts into Iraq itself,” he added.

NATO would continue to fight terrorism in other ways, including with direct support to the anti-IS coalition, Stoltenberg said.

The regional center would also provide advanced training courses on cybersecurity, energy security and chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, the NATO chief added.

The center was developed as a result of NATO’s political dialogue and practical cooperation with four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, through NATO’s Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) which was launched in 2004. The aim had been to boost security links with the Middle East, in particular Gulf Arab states.

The other two members of the GCC, Saudi Arabia and Oman, have said they plan to join the ICI.

Dialogue with Iran?

Meanwhile, Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah is to make a rare visit to Iran on Wednesday, delivering a message to President Hassan Rouhani on a “basis of dialogue.”

To date, Iran and GCC member Saudi Arabia have been at loggerheads and back opposite sides in the civil wars in both Syria and Yemen. Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain, cut diplomatic relations with Iran in January last year.

An estimated 30 percent of Kuwait’s population is Shiite, and as such the emirate has been seen as a potential mediator between GCC members and Iran. Kuwait’s emir visited Iran in 2014 in what was a first by a ruler of the US-allied state since Iran’s 1979 revolution.

“We are partners in the region and we have many common interests and possibilities,” said Sabah. He added that dialogue would be for the benefit of both sides. “Gulf states have a true desire that relations with Iran are normal and based on international law,” he told reporters after attending the inauguration of the NATO center.

NATO Generalsekretär Jens Stoltenberg in Kuwait (picture-alliance/abaca/J. Abdulkhaleg)‘European allies have to spend more, have to invest more on defense’: Stoltenberg

NATO and the US administration

Speaking at the inauguration, Stoltenberg said the new US administration was “fully committed” to the Western military alliance despite strong criticism from US President Donald Trump.

“I spoke with President Trump a few days after he was elected in November and he conveyed a very strong message to me that he personally was very committed to NATO and the trans-Atlantic partnership,” said Stoltenberg.

However, he did pick up on some of the criticisms of the organization which have come from the Trump camp. “European allies have to spend more, have to invest more on defense,” he said. “We have seen some progress but there is a long way to go.”

jm/cmk (AFP, Reuters)


German opposition leader calls for security union with Russia, dissolution of NATO

The parliamentary leader of Germany’s largest opposition party has urged the dissolution of the NATO alliance. Her remarks come after US president-elect Donald Trump described it as “obsolete.”

Sarah Wagenknecht of Die Linke


EU foreign ministers, NATO backers counter Trump talk

The EU’s top diplomat has shrugged off US President-elect Donald Trump’s opinions on further breakaways from the bloc. Germany’s foreign minister says Trump’s criticism of Angela Merkel created a stir in Brussels.

Opinion: Trump’s threats

German leaders dismayed and bewildered by Trump interview

German opposition leader Sahra Wagenknecht on Tuesday added her voice to calls to dissolve the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the wake of US President-elect Donald Trump’s controversial remarks concerning the military alliance

“NATO must be dissolved and replaced by a collective security system including Russia,” Wagenknecht told Germany’s “Funke” media group.

Wagenknecht, who leads the opposition Left Party in parliament, added that comments made by the future US president “mercilessly reveal the mistakes and failures of the [German] federal government.”

‘Very unfair’

In an interview published by German tabloid “Bild,” Trump described NATO as an “obsolete” organization.

“I said a long time ago that NATO had problems. Number one it was obsolete, because it was designed many, many years ago,” he said.

“We’re supposed to protect countries. But a lot of these countries aren’t paying what they’re supposed to be paying, which I think is very unfair to the United States,” Trump added.

Germany’s Left Party has previously called for warmer ties with Russia and scrapping the security alliance, measures which appear to be policy concerns for the incoming US administration.

The Left Party is Germany’s largest opposition group in parliament, and holds seats in several state legislatures.

Watch video03:05

Left Party: 25 years of German unity


The Afghan War and the Evolution of Obama

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s advisers wrestled with an intractable problem in the spring and summer of 2015: How could they stabilize Afghanistan while preserving Mr. Obama’s longtime goal of pulling out the last American troops before he left office?

As it happened, the president solved the problem for them. In early August of that year, when Mr. Obama convened a meeting of the National Security Council, he looked around the table and acknowledged a stark new reality.

“The fever in this room has finally broken,” the president told the group, according to a person in the meeting. “We’re no longer in nation-building mode.”

What Mr. Obama meant was that no one in the Situation Room that day, himself included, thought that the United States — after 14 years of war, billions of dollars spent and more than 2,000 American lives lost — would ever transform Afghanistan into a semblance of a democracy able to defend itself.

At the same time, he added, “the counterterrorism challenges are real.” As bleak as Afghanistan’s prospects were, the United States could not afford to walk away and allow the country to become a seedbed for extremists again.

A few weeks later, the president halted the withdrawal and announced that he would leave thousands of American troops in the country indefinitely.

It was a crucial turning point in the evolution of Barack Obama. The antiwar candidate of 2008 who had pledged to turn around Afghanistan — the “good war” to George W. Bush’s “bad war” in Iraq — had conceded that the longest military operation in American history would not end on his watch. The optimistic president who once thought Afghanistan was winnable had, through bitter experience, become the commander in chief of a forever war.


A Developing Stance on the Afghan War

President Obama’s shifting approach to the conflict is a lens through which to judge his legacy as a wartime leader.

By A.J. CHAVAR on Publish DateJanuary 1, 2017. Photo by Doug Mills/The New York Times. Watch in Times Video »

He remains defensive about the lessons of that journey. “We shouldn’t assume that every time a country has problems that it reflects a failure of American policy,” the president said in an interview in September.

Now, as Mr. Obama prepares to turn the war over to Donald J. Trump, a leader even more skeptical than he is about the value of American engagement in foreign conflicts, Afghanistan captures the disillusionment of a man who believed, as he put it in his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.”

More than any other conflict, Afghanistan shaped Mr. Obama’s thinking on the basic questions of war, peace and the use of military power. It is where he discovered his affinity for drones, sharpened his belief in the limits of American intervention, battled his generals and hardened his disdain for unreliable foreign leaders. It reaffirmed his suspicions about sending American troops into foreign conflicts and made him reluctant to use more force in Iraq, Syria, Libya and other war zones.

It also chastened him about his own hopes.

“When it comes to helping these societies stabilize and create a more secure environment and a better life for their people, we have to understand,” he said in the interview, “that this is a long slog.”

‘A War That We Have to Win’


Two Marines on a mountain ridge overlooking the Pakistani border near Kamu, Afghanistan, in 2008. The Taliban often attacked an American outpost in the area from firing positions on the mountain ridge.CreditTyler Hicks/The New York Times

Mr. Obama was a state senator from Illinois in October 2002 when he famously condemned Iraq as a “dumb war.” But in the same speech he also said, “I don’t oppose all wars.” He was referring to Afghanistan, which he viewed as a just war to hunt down the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“I would willingly take up arms myself to prevent such tragedy from happening again,” he told the crowd that day in Chicago’s Federal Plaza.

By July 2008, as the Democratic nominee for president, Mr. Obama had embraced Afghanistan as a priority over Iraq — the “good war,” in a phrase that he never actually used himself but that became so associated with his approach it was sometimes wrongly attributed to him.

Mr. Obama praised the Bush administration’s troop surge in Iraq that year not because he believed that the United States could transform Iraqi society, but because he thought that reducing the violence there would allow the nation to turn its attention to Afghanistan.

“This is a war that we have to win,” he declared. He promised to send at least two more combat brigades, or roughly 10,000 soldiers, to Afghanistan.

The United States was hardly on course for victory. Although there were already close to 50,000 American troops in Afghanistan as Mr. Obama campaigned that summer, the Taliban were gaining momentum. In a bloody debacle, nine American soldiers were killed in what became known as the Battle of Wanat when the Taliban brazenly overran a remote Army outpost in the far eastern province of Nuristan.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed Mr. Obama in calling the situation in the country “precarious and urgent.” More than 100 Americans would die in Afghanistan by the end of 2008, a larger number than in any other prior year.


Cpl. Pruitt A. Rainey’s coffin was carried from the Glen Hope Baptist Church in Burlington, N.C., in July 2008. Corporal Rainey, 22, was one of nine American soldiers killed in the Battle of Wanat that month.CreditPeter Schumacher/The Burlington Times-News, via Associated Press

When Mr. Obama took office in January 2009, he ordered a quick policy review on Afghanistan by a former intelligence analyst, Bruce Riedel. But even before it was completed, he accepted a Pentagon recommendation to send 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total to nearly 70,000 American troops on the ground.

By the fall of 2009, with the Taliban showing increased strength, Mr. Obama’s military commanders, backed by the elders on his war council, including Hillary Clinton, then his secretary of state, were pressing him to go much farther.

They urged on him an ambitious counterinsurgency strategy that had helped turn around the war in Iraq — a troop-heavy, time-consuming, expensive doctrine of trying to win over the locals by building roads, bridges, schools and a well-functioning government.

The strategy, known by its acronym COIN, would require as many as 40,000 additional American men and women in uniform in Afghanistan, his advisers told him.

“There was still the afterglow of the surge in Iraq, and the counterinsurgency narrative that had made the military the savior of the Iraq war,” said Vali R. Nasr, a former State Department adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan. “I don’t believe Obama was in a position to pick a debate with the military on Afghanistan, and to assert what would be his worldview.”

“In many ways, I think, he deferred,” said Mr. Nasr, now the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Although Mr. Obama agreed after months of internal debate to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, he placed a strict timetable on the mission, saying they would have to be withdrawn again, starting in July 2011. His aides later said he felt hijacked by a military that had presented him with a narrow band of options rather than a real choice.

The Obama Era

In the coming weeks, The Obama Era will explore the sweeping change that President Obama has brought to the nation, and how the presidency has changed him.

  • PART 1The Regulator in Chief

  • PART 2The Threat to the Planet

  • PART 3The “Good War”

  • PART 4The Health Care Revolution

  • PART 5Breaking the Racial Barrier

  • PART 6A Changed Man

Even some former military commanders agreed, saying that the troop deployments were framed in a way that made choosing a smaller number — 20,000, for example — look like a path to certain defeat.

“President Obama was asking the military for broad options,” said Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired general who served as the commander in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 and was later Mr. Obama’s ambassador to Kabul. But, he said, the military gave Mr. Obama only “variations” on “the more robust counterinsurgency model.”

Mr. Eikenberry, who wrote a politically explosive but prescient cable in late 2009 raising doubts about the wisdom of the surge, diagnosed a deeper problem with the policy. Was it simply to prevent Afghanistan from being a safe haven for Al Qaeda? Or was it to turn Afghanistan into another Denmark? “When he came in, everyone knew we were going to do more,” Mr. Eikenberry said. “But what we were trying to achieve was difficult to define.”

Given Mr. Obama’s innate wariness of nation-building, it didn’t take long for him to grow disenchanted with the Denmark option. A few months into the surge, in the spring of 2010, David H. Petraeus, the commander of the Pentagon’s Central Command and an architect of the strategy, was briefing him on the state of the counterinsurgency campaign.

Drawing on anthropology theory from the University of Chicago, General Petraeus explained to his commander in chief how neighborhoods in Kandahar related to one another. Mr. Obama listened for a while, then cut him off. “We can’t worry about how neighborhoods relate to each other in Kandahar,” he curtly told General Petraeus, according to people in the room.

“Obama believes the military can do enormous things,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser. “It can win wars and stabilize conflicts. But a military can’t create a political culture or build a society.”

‘Afghan Good Enough’


Mr. Obama and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement in Kabul in May 2012. The two had long had a rocky relationship. CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

By the end of his first term, Mr. Obama had evolved to the point that he fully embraced the concept “Afghan good enough.” The phrase, which had been kicked around the White House since 2010, referred to the shift away from nation-building to a policy that was content with taking out the terrorists, preventing the Taliban from overrunning the country and putting a premium on getting the troops out.

By that new standard, things had improved in Afghanistan. By August 2010, 100,000 American troops were on the ground in Afghanistan and were pushing back the Taliban in some critical areas. Despite uneven progress in the military campaign, Ryan Crocker, a diplomat who had reopened the American Embassy in Kabul in 2002 and served there again as ambassador in 2011, recalled thinking, “Wow, this place looks great!”

The Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011 added to Mr. Obama’s conviction that he was on the way to closing the books on the war.

At midnight on May 1, 2012, Air Force One rolled out from behind a hangar at Joint Base Andrews to pick up the president for a secret trip to Afghanistan. He was going to sign a strategic partnership agreement with President Hamid Karzai that set the terms for relations after 2014, when the United States was scheduled to withdraw its combat troops and turn over Afghanistan’s security to the Afghans.

Aides to Mr. Obama had advised him not to go for security reasons, but he saw it as an important milestone.

The agreement promised an “enduring partnership” between the United States and Afghanistan, with pledges of American help in developing the Afghan economy and public institutions. Yet the promises obscured a starker reality: Mr. Obama had accelerated the timetable for drawing down American troops, and he was looking beyond the war.

Speaking to a national TV audience from Bagram Air Base, he suggested that America’s experience in Afghanistan had come full circle. “One year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden,” he said. “The goal I set — to defeat Al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild — is now within our reach.”

Earlier, Mr. Obama had met for an hour with Mr. Karzai. The two had long had a rocky relationship — on an earlier trip, Mr. Obama excoriated Mr. Karzai for the rampant corruption in the Afghan government — and this session did little to improve their rapport. Mr. Crocker recalled that the president was “very aloof, almost cold, which bothered me a bit because I’d worked a solid damn year to get Karzai in a better place with us.”

Things never warmed up between them. When Mr. Karzai refused to sign a long-term security agreement with Washington, Mr. Obama gave up on him to focus on his successor, Ashraf Ghani. The experience left a lasting imprint on the president, his aides said. He concluded that without the right partner, it was impossible for the United States to succeed, no matter how much blood and treasure it poured into a country.

It was an insight that Mr. Obama applied to his relations with other countries, from Pakistan to Israel, where his poor relationships with the leaders impeded progress. “The most underappreciated part of foreign policy,” Mr. Rhodes said, “is dealing with flawed partners.”

ISIS, a New, Radiating Threat


A bomb blast targeted NATO forces in Kabul in July 2015. CreditShah Marai/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

When Mr. Obama convened his National Security Council that day in August 2015, the Taliban were regrouping again. They had carried out audacious terrorist attacks in the center of Kabul and had mounted a military offensive in the provinces of Kunduz and Oruzgan.

Worse, there was a new threat in the form of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which sprouted in the poisonous soil of Iraq after the United States left and was finding recruits in the Hindu Kush.

Mr. Obama had rejected a chorus of calls in Washington to delay the drawdown, under which the residual force of American troops was to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

“The mantra I heard was that the president does not want to hand off to his successor the mess he inherited,” said Daniel F. Feldman, who served as the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2014 and 2015.

But as the Islamic State became a dire enough threat to return American troops to Iraq, Mr. Obama felt compelled to change course on Afghanistan. “ISIL thrived in a vacuum in Iraq and it pointed to a similar vacuum in Afghanistan,” Mr. Rhodes said.

Mr. Obama, he said, was prodded by more than fear. After a long stretch of political paralysis, Afghanistan formed a government with Mr. Ghani in the presidency. For the first time since taking office, Mr. Obama felt like he had a partner with whom he could do business. The American-trained Afghan Army was taking heavy casualties fighting the Taliban, and the president believed that the United States had an obligation to help them.

But as Mr. Obama’s war council met that August morning, the level of American support remained the subject of intense debate.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a skeptic about Afghanistan going back to 2009, argued that the country would revert to chaos, regardless of how long the United States stayed there. “It doesn’t matter if we leave tomorrow or 10 years from now,” he declared, according to those in the room. He was, he conceded, a “broken record” on this issue.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who had succeeded Admiral Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended that the United States maintain a military presence in Kabul, and at Bagram and a scattering of bases in the east and south. The 10,000 soldiers in the country would carry out a singular, ruthless mission of killing suspected terrorists and keeping the country from spiraling out of control.

The imperative, General Dempsey told Mr. Obama, was that Afghanistan fit into a broader counterterrorism policy from Central Asia to North Africa to extend “well beyond your presidency,” according to several officials.

Mr. Obama liked that idea. It was in line, he said, with the principles he had laid out in a 2014 speech at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., where he said America would train and equip foreign armies but leave the front-line fighting to them. He acknowledged that it would mean handing off Afghanistan to his successor as unfinished business.

“This goes to the politics of what I’m leaving for the next president,” he told the group, according to one of the participants. “My interest is not to sign them up for 10 years of X,” he added, referring to troop numbers, “but to lay out a vision and to put stakes in the ground for that vision.”


President Obama addressed graduates at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., in May 2014. In his speech, he said the United States would train and equip foreign armies but leave the front-line fighting to them. CreditGabriella Demczuk/The New York Times

Mr. Obama now seems at an uneasy peace. In the interview in September, he disputed the suggestion that his policy had failed. He had, after all, reduced the number of American troops to fewer than 10,000 from more than 100,000. They were training and assisting Afghan troops, even if the line between that and actual combat was sometimes blurry.

The country had been broken to begin with, he said, and America was never going to fix it. “Afghanistan was one of the poorest countries in the world with the lowest literacy rates in the world before we got there. It continues to be,” Mr. Obama said. The country “was riven with all kinds of ethnic and tribal divisions before we got there. It’s still there.”

In the end, Afghanistan became the template for a new kind of warfare — a chronic conflict, across an arc of unstable states, in which the United States is a participant, if not the principal actor.

At a NATO summit meeting in Warsaw in July, Mr. Obama acknowledged that this prospect would disappoint an American public still suffering from combat fatigue. “It’s very hard for us ever to get the satisfaction of MacArthur and the emperor meeting, and a war being officially over,” he said.

“As commander in chief of the most powerful military in the world,” he went on, “I spend a lot of time brooding over these issues. And I’m not satisfied we’ve got it perfect yet.”