What Trump Didn’t Say About Afghanistan In His State of the Union Address

What Trump Didn’t Say About Afghanistan In His State of the Union Address

Publication info


In America’s longest recent State of the Union Address, President Trump devoted just 34 words to America’s longest war – the conflict in Afghanistan. He talked exclusively in military terms. I wish the President had found a few more words to avoid an ominous omission. The critical capacity for long term victory isn’t ultimately a soldier in a Humvee, it’s a young Afghan woman in a classroom. Troop levels have risen, fallen, and risen again through three presidencies, but if you seek long term stability, then completing the job of investing in Afghanistan's women and girls is the only real exit strategy.

As we approach the war’s seventeenth year, finally we need to measure Afghanistan by the right metrics. The hawkish Senator, Lindsey Graham was right when he said, “educating poor young girls will do more . . . than any bomb we could drop.” There are no battlefield gains we can sustain for long without the commitment of the people who live there. 

On Tuesday, the President underscored his determination to “fund our great military.” But his Defense Secretary – the former head of Central Command - argues that if the United States doesn’t adequately fund development programs, “then I need to buy more ammunition.” Hundreds of senior generals and admirals agree. “The military will lead the fight against terrorism on the battlefield,” they noted last year, “but it needs strong civilian partners in the battle against the drivers of extremism – lack of opportunity, insecurity, injustice, and hopelessness.”
These realities only underscore the myopia of a new Afghanistan strategy weighted entirely towards military expenditure, an approach Secretary Tillerson describes as “not putting so much of the U.S. taxpayer dollars on the ground building schools.”

The modest investments Tillerson dismisses so casually are the backbone of a strategy that will ultimately break the cycle of president after president having to decide what troop levels to send into Afghanistan. It’s the only sustainable way to help Afghans themselves build a society resilient enough to reject extremists. 

In a sixteen-year struggle of victories and setbacks, commitments to Afghanistan’s human capital are providing a material return on American investment. It’s easy to forget that just fifteen years ago, less than a million Afghan children attended school – nearly all of them boys. But now, over 16,000 schools have been built and 150,000 teachers trained – more than a third of them women.  Over 9 million children today attend school, nearly half of them are girls. Fifteen years ago, life expectancy and infant mortality were among the world’s worst.  But in just 10 years, with greater investments in maternal health, the number of children who die every year before the age of 5 has plummeted 37 percent.  Life expectancy has risen from 55 to 60 years.

That’s the untold story in Afghanistan that was omitted from the State of the Union address. Its central characters -- strong and resilient women – don’t make headlines. But they should be the center-piece of our strategy going forward -- in peace-keeping, education, economic empowerment and governance. 

On a recent trip to Afghanistan, I was struck by the optimism of the women and girls I met. A feeding program for widows that CARE began ten years ago has grown into the Kabul Women’s Federation: 10,000 members fighting for their rights. I met a courageous woman named Geeti, who, although illiterate herself, has turned her home into a school for 100 boys and girls. The future of Afghanistan won’t be written by bigger bombs but by the young people Geeti empowers; they will shape the economic, social and political destiny of their country in ways drone strikes never will. 

We live in a dangerous world where disruptive change arrives at digital speed. It’s easy to be myopic, but it’s no excuse. It’s also easy to be pessimistic – and I am not naïve about the risks in Afghanistan: a truck bomb blew a hole in the front of our Kabul offices just over a year ago, and even in the last week, hundreds of innocent lives have been lost in barbaric attacks. 
But these are not reasons to give up; they instead give us clarity that we must focus on books not just bombs. That’s our best hope that one day when a future President mentions Afghanistan in the State of the Union Address, it will be to describe a stable country, not an endless war.