There is an old Afghan folk tale that portrays a foreigner balancing two connected trays attached to the handheld weighing device used in South Asian bazaars. The foreigner carefully loads one tray and then the other with frogs. Just as he puts the last few frogs on one tray and then the other, some frogs on the first tray hop off. As the foreigner returns those frogs to the tray, frogs on the second tray hop off or jump to the other tray. Before long, all the frogs are in motion, moving in one direction or the other, and the foreigner gives up.
Like the folk tale, the Afghanistan conundrum could not be simpler for all of its complexity: What can the U.S. do differently than other great powers did over the millennia to bring a profoundly ungovernable country to heel? Put somewhat differently, what can President Trump do to avoid a continuing and reliably deadly stalemate in a now 16-year old conflict -- by far the longest war in American history-- that shows no sign of ending?
Nothing, absolutely nothing.
But leave it to Trump to make a bad situation even worse. This is because the goal of any war is to win it, right? And outright victory -- which has eluded Alexander the Great, Mongols, Chinese, British and the Soviet Union -- is not possible. Everyone, most especially the boots on the ground, know that despite the president's inevitable claim in a televised address on Monday night that "in the end, we will win."
The war is not winnable, nor did Trump provide a clue as to how it could be won, let alone a timeline.
This post-9/11 war, which in its most crucial early phase was robbed of materiel and men in service of the neocon wet dream to bring democracy to Iraq, has taken 2,403 American lives at a cost of more than one trillion dollars, and another 1,036 lives of coalition soldiers, not including the thousands of GIs with severe physical and emotional problems who return home to a country and Veterans Affairs system ill equipped to deal with them.
Afghan casualty estimates are all over the place, but have passed 90,000 for soldiers, civilian and militants combined.
Trump said he would "not talk about numbers of troops," but senior military commanders have asked for several thousand more -- perhaps 4,000 or so -- to advise Afghan forces in their fight against the Taliban and step up U.S. airstrikes.
Speaking of hopping frogs, the new strategy includes pressuring Pakistan, long accused of harboring terrorists, to override its head-bangingly complex and often contradictory interests and support U.S. goals. It ain't going to happen. Ever.
Trump’s decision guarantees failure because it is an incoherent middle path that happens to override the two main foreign policy themes he pushed as a candidate, which make some sense when you're on the outside looking in: To stay out of expensive overseas quagmires, and to decisively win any conflict worth entering. This middle path, of course, ignores Trump's frequent calls for Obama to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan as his predecessor incrementally if modestly escalated troop levels to about 8,000 during his second term although that is nowhere near peak 100,000 troop levels when he took office.
Meanwhile, the inept and deeply corrupt Afghan government controls barely half of the country, although it has not reverted to being a base for terrorist attacks. The Taliban remain attractive to local tribal chieftains, the people who really run Afghanistan, because the are comparatively less corrupt, while the Afghan army is inept and has little loyalty to officers or the government.
Trump, in bowing to his generals -- McMaster, Mattis, Dunford and Kelly -- apparently has rejected the outrageous idea pushed by recently departed chief White House strategist Steve Bannon and nakedly self-interested Blackwater founder Erik Prince to send in an army of private mercenaries.
The otherwise despicable Bannon does deserve a small measure of credit when it comes to Afghanistan, which was reflected in the Breitbart News front page following the speech.
Bannon adamantly opposed "nation building," which of course got the U.S. in way over its head in Iraq and green lighted Iran's further dominance of the Middle East. He got it right about Afghanistan because Afghanis don't want the U.S. to build a nation for them, nor would it be able to with 400,000 more troops, let alone 4,000.
For that, at least, we can be thankful, but it is a small victory. Even given all his faults when it came to Afghanistan Obama was thoughtful and patient. Trump is dangerously impulsive and desperate for victories.