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Commentary -- Trump on Afghanistan: New president, same old dilemma

Trump on Afghanistan

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of President Trump's speech on Afghanistan was how, well, unsurprising it was. It was, with a few notable exceptions, a speech both Presidents Bush and  Obama could have given. In fact, I'm pretty sure they did.

"We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America" was straight from W's policy shop, while "the American people are weary of war without victory" sounds awfully Obama-esque. In his speech, President Trump tried to square these two circles. From a policy standpoint, he failed. But that isn't likely to matter. Because Americans are as ambivalent about the war in Afghanistan as President Trump appears to be.

View from Afghanistan after President Trump's address

Trump was smart to remind voters why we invaded in the first place -- something his predecessors rarely did. In the wake of 9/11 -- planned in Afghanistan by the Taliban-backed al Qaeda terror network -- support for sending U.S. ground troops was around 80 percent.

Since then, public support for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan ebbed and flowed, falling into the twenties at various points. Americans have mixed feelings because on the one hand, they want to -- as President Trump put it several times -- "kill terrorists," but they also cheered when Trump passionately insisted (and it was his most impassioned moment of the night), "We are not nation-building again!"

Thus, the dilemma: The job of killing Al Qaeda or ISIS or Taliban terrorists in Afghanistan will fall upon American warriors -- and taxpayers -- until a nation has been built that can handle the work. For example, despite having spent around $70 billion since 2001 to support Afghan military and police, the Taliban has been steadily gaining ground.  And as Tom Jocelyn of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies reports, in 2015, after nearly 14 years of fighting terrorism and thousands of American deaths and injuries, "The U.S. led a raid on what was probably the largest al Qaeda training camp in history."

Fourteen years in and Al Qaeda is still growing? Is this what victory looks like?

The bad news for President Trump (and any other person in his position) is that Afghanistan is a no-win proposition: Stay, and you keep losing American lives and treasure. Go, and you risk a future attack planned in Kandahar but executed in Kansas City.

The good news is that his supporters are far more interested in partisan politics than foreign policy.  I asked a grassroots conservative activist in South Carolina what he was hearing about the president's Afghanistan speech.

"My people don't care about the Afghanistan war -- we're in the middle of a culture war," he told me.

Mr. Trump appears to agree. He began his speech by talking indirectly about the Charlottesville controversy, using the call of patriotism to pressure those who've been critical of his performance.

"The young men and women we send to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home," he said. "We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other."

Not particularly subtle. And in this current moment of polarization, not likely to be effective. The war over Trump isn't ending anytime soon, and it will soon drown out the discussion of the forgotten war in Afghanistan.

And, unfortunately, the young men and women we send to fight it.

CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.

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