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Columnists
Cal Thomas: Afghanistan: A bottomless pit?

President Trump is not the first U.S. leader to pivot when it comes to foreign policy. His speech Monday night before American military personnel at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, was in stark contrast to his campaign pledge to put “America first” and his promise to avoid “foreign entanglements,” as George Washington put it in his Farewell Address.

The president admitted that reality caught up with him after his inauguration and that America must ensure that al-Qaida does not again gain a foothold in the country from which it could plot another massive terror attack on the U.S.

A Trump administration official said the Pentagon will send an estimated 4,000 additional American forces to Afghanistan, a plan reminiscent of the Iraq “surge” ordered by President George W. Bush and successfully led by Gen. David Petraeus. What is different about this latest tactic is the threat of financial consequences if Pakistan doesn’t stop harboring terrorists and do more to help win the war.

The question remains: What does “winning” look like? President Trump promised not to engage in “nation building,” but what is its alternative? After 16 years in Afghanistan, the cost of war has risen to an estimated $700 billion. More than 2,000 American lives have been lost and thousands more wounded. We have hardly established a foundation for a stable nation, much less built anything on it.

Departing from President Obama’s announcements of timetables for withdrawal, Trump said “Conditions on the ground — not arbitrary timetables — will guide our strategy from now on,” adding, “Another fundamental pillar of our new strategy is the integration of all instruments of American power — diplomatic, economic, and military — toward a successful outcome.”

I’m all for successful outcomes, but what does he have in mind? How will success be determined? How does one stabilize an unstable country mired down by rival tribes and religious conflict?

In his speech there was an implied threat to India if that country doesn’t help with the war effort: “India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development. We are committed to pursuing our shared objectives for peace and security in South Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region.”

The president noted he has already “lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our war fighters that prevented the secretary of defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy. Micromanagement from Washington, D.C., does not win battles. They are won in the field drawing upon the judgment and expertise of wartime commanders and frontline soldiers acting in real time, with real authority, and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy.”

The “rules of engagement” have contributed to American casualty figures. The enemy plays by no rules. Will the lifting of U.S. rules kill more of the enemy, or kill more civilians behind whom enemy forces often hide?

The president also issued a warning to the Afghan government: “America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress. However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check. The government of Afghanistan must carry their share of the military, political, and economic burden. The American people expect to see real reforms, real progress, and real results. Our patience is not unlimited. We will keep our eyes wide open.”

If they don’t comply, will we pull out anyway? That’s what al-Qaida is banking on.

There is much that is right about the president’s announced new strategy and objectives, but the question remains: Can this war be won and the country stabilized, or will Afghanistan always be a bottomless pit?

It shouldn’t be long before we have an answer.


Columnists
OTHER VIEW
Other View: Trump must explain his change of heart on Afghanistan

The following editorial appears on Bloomberg View:

In his speech Monday about Afghanistan, President Donald Trump admitted that he once opposed the very strategy he was proposing. “My original instinct was to pull out,” he said. “I like following my instincts.”

Credit where it is due: These may be the five truest words Trump has ever spoken. Harder to credit is his explanation for why he changed his mind and ordered more troops. His policy may well be the right one, but he owes his supporters — and the country — a fuller accounting of his thinking.

Trump’s main point was that the world looks different once you become president. This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. Taken to its logical extreme, it is a rationale for abandoning any inconvenient campaign promise.

This is not to say that candidates should be held to every stupid thing they say during a campaign, or that they shouldn’t give up on a goal when it’s clear it cannot be realized. Nor is it to say that elected officials should never admit error. When the facts change, to paraphrase Keynes, you change your mind.

When an elected official does go back on his word, however, he has a heavy burden of proof. In this case, Trump failed to meet it. Withdrawal, he said, would dishonor those who died fighting in Afghanistan; it would open the door to a Taliban takeover and possibly allow dozens of terrorist groups to operate in Afghanistan with impunity; and it would destabilize the wider region, including nuclear-armed Pakistan.

All these points are perfectly defensible. Each is also completely familiar to anyone who has been paying attention for the last 16 years. Does the president have new facts that bolster his position? If so, he should share them. It’s not enough for him to simply recite arguments; he needs to better explain why they are more convincing now than they used to be.

This need for clarity is even greater in life-or-death decisions such as whether to send more American soldiers to war. That is essentially Trump’s policy on Afghanistan: several thousand more U.S. troops — Trump did not give an exact number — along with greater pressure on both Pakistan (to stop harboring the Taliban) and the Afghan government (to be more honest and accountable).

Again, not an unreasonable policy. But, like his justification for it, the policy itself is vague. More details would have allowed Trump to say, in effect: I know this sounds a lot like the policy I have long criticized. Here’s why and how it’s not.

Trump didn’t do that. He outlined the risks of withdrawal without explaining the benefits of remaining. What’s the goal going forward? Trump has clearly convinced himself that staying is better than leaving, but he hasn’t tried very hard to convince the American people. Until he does, he can expect them to be skeptical — like he used to be — of U.S. policy in Afghanistan.


Mailbag
Letter: Check charities before giving

Check charities before giving

Everyone has a cause they care about. And with more than 1.2 million charitable organizations to choose from, finding one aligned with your values can be deeply rewarding. While the vast majority of soliciting charities act responsibly and deserve your support, Americans must remember that not all organizations are created equal.

Case in point: In 2015, the Federal Trade Commission, all 50 states, and the District of Columbia, charged four sham cancer charities with bilking donors of $187 million over a five-year period. The New York Times reported these charity operators spent a significant portion of the money on personal expenses such as Caribbean cruises, college tuition and trips to Disney World for themselves and their healthy families. And they hired fundraisers who often received 85 percent or more of collected funds.

Charity fraud has consequences. Generous donors lose money, social issues stay unsolved, and the needful remain in need. But it can be avoided—scams have common signs. If a charity solicits you, ask specific questions to get details; be on guard against aggressive fundraising tactics; and be cautious if they try tugging at your heartstrings. Above all, check them out using a charity evaluator, such as BBB’s Give.org, which help donors of all kinds decide which charities to trust with their donations.

So, when you’re donating, do it with peace of mind by taking the time to check out the charity first. It just might make all the difference.

Art Taylor

President and CEO of BBB’s Give.org


Editorial
OUR VIEW
Our View: Fanatics threaten Idaho’s GOP

Of all the reactions and criticisms to the fallout from the deadly rightwing rally in Charlottesville, Va., we’ve been most impressed by the thoughts of former Supreme Court chief justice and Republican attorney general Jim Jones.

Writing for the Times-News, Jones recounted Idaho’s dark history with white supremacists at Hayden Lake and the role conservative leaders played in driving neo-Nazis out of the state. The key, Jones said, were the Republican leaders who quickly and forcefully condemned white supremacy and the ideals of hatemongers.

That’s why it’s so troubling now to see Idaho conservatives failing so spectacularly. Prime examples include Rep. Heather Scott of Blanchard and Rep. Bryan Zollinger of Idaho Falls.

In a Facebook post last week, Zollinger posited it was “completely plausible” that Democrats staged the events in Charlottesville to smear President Donald Trump. The theory is not only disgusting but entirely not plausible, considering video of the event shows torch-carrying Nazis shouting “Jews will not replace us.” The rally was indisputably organized by far-right extremists who have not only taken credit for organizing the rally but have publicly continued to espouse extreme and racist views in the aftermath.

Zollinger’s post, which originated on a conspiracy website called The American Thinker, suggested the deadly terror attack that killed a young protester and was a factor in the death of two police officers in a helicopter crash was a plot by former President Barack Obama, billionaire George Soros, the governor of Virginia and the city’s mayor.

More troubling, instead of realizing his folly and apologizing for spreading such outrageous lies, Zollinger doubled down on his claim even after receiving harsh criticism from both the left and the right. He even bragged that donations to his political campaign have increased as a result of his social media post.

Heather Scott, meanwhile, continues to instigate white nationalist views in northern Idaho, the former home to white supremacists prior conservative leaders fought so hard to drive out. She seems to enjoy being photographed with Confederate battle flags. Idaho wasn’t even a state until nearly 30 years after the Civil War, so she can’t claim the flags represent anything about our state’s “heritage.” Rather, the symbolism here is meant to be a wink and nod to racists in Idaho.

Here in the Magic Valley, Scott was cozy with conspiracy theorists who believed Twin Falls city leaders where involved in some vague plot to cover up the sexual assault of a 5-year-old girl in the Fawnbrook Apartments incident because the perpetrators were Muslim. And, of course, she was stripped of her legislative committee assignments last session when she suggested women advance in the Legislature only when they perform sexual favors for party leaders.

Fanatics like Scott and Zollinger aren’t just making fools of themselves and the state. They and their allies nearly derailed the Legislature two years ago over a laughable argument that complying with a federal funding requirement somehow made the state susceptible to falling under Sharia law. Unbelievably, a considerable number of elected conservatives gave the theory credence.

That alone should serve as a disturbing example of just how far zealots have already crept into the state’s lawmaking body and how much influence they wield.

Scott, Zollinger and others like them are a stark contrast to the GOP leaders of old, back when the Republican Party quickly condemned racists, not enabled them. Any self-respecting Republican in Idaho today should be quick to shun Scott, Zollinger and others who are a cancer to the party of Lincoln, especially Idaho’s gubernatorial candidates, whose responses so far have come far too late or have been far too tepid. Failing to do so provides extremists with more legitimacy and threatens to alienate moderate voters, companies considering business in Idaho and the right and just citizens who’ve fought for generations to make Idaho a place where race and creed have no bearing on a person’s pursuit of happiness.

Republicans must make it crystal clear that white supremacists and their enablers have no place in the party – or in Idaho. Scott and Zollinger are doing the opposite. How shameful.