The U.S. and Taliban are working to secure a peace deal in this weekend’s eighth round of talks in Doha, Qatar. Washington’s effort to wrap things up in Afghanistan contrasts with its confrontational policies toward Iran, China and Venezuela. But in reality there is strategic logic to President Trump’s madcap, Twitter-driven foreign policy — the logic of shifting priorities.
No war can go on forever. U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan on my daughter’s second birthday. She’s about to start her sophomore year in college. Word has it that negotiations are in the offing to terminate U.S. involvement in that embattled land by next year, when the president will seek reelection. He clearly wants to fulfill a campaign promise. But his reasoning echoes that of President Obama, whose Defense Department announced it would “pivot” to Asia in 2012.
Pivoting to Asia — or, more precisely, to the Pacific theater — meant extricating U.S. forces from the Middle East and Central Asia. Only through a partial or complete withdrawal could the Pentagon afford to redirect enough martial resources to the Pacific to face down an ambitious China. So it was with the Obama administration; so it is with the Trump administration, which has vowed to prosecute “great-power competition” with verve.
The logic is bipartisan and compelling. It acknowledges that not all American wars culminate in victory. They can end in triumph, as in World War II, or in a draw, as in the Korean War. In both instances U.S. forces remained in place indefinitely after the guns fell silent — helping cement a more or less agreeable peace earned by U.S. and allied arms. Congress, presidential administrations, and the electorate cared enough about the postwar settlements in Europe and the Far East to invest national treasure and military resources to enforce them.
Permanent interests transcended the end of fighting.
Or a military expedition may come to an indeterminate end, as in Vietnam. A pullout from a combat theater is not an option when vital national interests such as survival are at stake, as in the world wars. A country fights to the finish when it must. Inconclusive war termination is an option in regional fracases, where less-than-vital interests typically are at stake. Officialdom or society may lose interest in discretionary interests over time. Or the world may change around America, thrusting new priorities on Washington that compete with — and perhaps come to outweigh — ongoing efforts.
If so, statesmen and military commanders may find themselves forced into a cost-cutting exercise that my fellow Naval War College professor Marc Genest and I call “strategic triage.” Washington reassesses its priorities and reapportions resources where they are most needed and may do the most good. Local allies — South Vietnam, Iraq, and now Afghanistan — may become casualties of the triage process if they cannot stand on their own.
The triage concept comes from the world of medicine. After some mass-casualty disaster, medical folk sort victims into three groups: those likely to survive without treatment, those unlikely to survive even with treatment, and those whose chances are good if they receive medical care. The latter group takes precedence. Caregivers would prefer to save everyone. But if the demand for medical help outstrips available resources, setting and enforcing priorities helps them spend finite resources saving the most lives possible.
Medical triage, then, sees lifesaving as something good in itself. It’s for the benefit of the stricken.
Strategic triage is a peculiar type of triage. It’s ruthlessly selective and self-serving. The authorities doing the triaging sort political commitments and local allies — those being succored — into successes that no longer demand U.S. involvement; lost causes, or causes that no longer seem worth the expense or bother; and endeavors that U.S. leaders would like to salvage if they can do so at a cost Americans are prepared to pay.
In other words, strategic triage is about looking out for Number One. It’s about gauging which commitments are worth rescuing, not just which can be rescued.
Prussian military sage Carl von Clausewitz sketches a rough-and-ready formula for ranking priorities. For him, statecraft involves designating a top priority and pursuing lesser goals only on a not-to-interfere basis with what matters most. Policymakers and commanders, he says, should open new commitments only if they promise “exceptional” rewards; only if they can be undertaken without undue risk to the main commitment; and thus, only if the country has “decisive” resources available to fulfill its uppermost priority.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? Clausewitz would admonish policymakers to discard commitments that no longer proffer exceptional rewards, or that have started soaking up so many economic or military resources that too little is left for higher priorities. It makes little strategic sense to sacrifice what matters most for the sake of subsidiary aims.
In cases such as Vietnam, Iraq, or now Afghanistan, where the United States has backed a local ally yet decides to withdraw its support, practitioners of strategic triage hope the ally can stand alone against its enemies. That equates to the medical category of patients who will survive without care. Iraq survived the U.S. pullout in 2010, although it needed help to withstand the ISIS onslaught a few years later. Or local allies may fall to their enemies, much as some disaster victims succumb to their wounds even with treatment. South Vietnam fell to a North Vietnamese assault in 1975. They prove incurable.
Will Afghanistan be an Iraq, which stands even if it wobbles from time to time, or will it be a South Vietnam?
Strategic triage may seem like an antiseptic process, a straightforward application of Clausewitzian cost/benefit analysis. It’s not. There are human costs to cutting loose a theater or commitment. I defy you to read any history of the closing days of South Vietnam without melancholy. There are also opportunity costs. Do what strategic logic demands you do today, and you may weaken your current international fellowships while forfeiting future opportunities to construct new ones.
After all, as Clausewitz warns, no government attaches as much value to another’s cause as to its own. An ally takes part in multinational enterprises halfheartedly, and it looks for the exit when the going gets tough. Prospective allies will remember that America once deserted its allies in their time of need, and may rebuff entreaties from Washington. Meanwhile, U.S. leaders need to think hard before hitching their fortunes to doubtful causes.