On August 21st, 2017, Donald Trump announced his strategy to continue the 16-year-long war in Afghanistan. Trump’s speech on Afghan policy was postponed a number of times, the main reason being the disagreement between his security team and the military commanders over managing and terminating the 16-year-long war in Afghanistan, as the longest war in American history. In his speech, Trump stated that from now on, US forces will be able to target the Taliban and other terrorist groups throughout Afghanistan. The Trump strategy for Afghanistan has five key features that will be explored further below.
1. Number of forces
The president will allow the Pentagon to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan by several thousand, but Trump said that the US military does not reveal the exact number of troops: “We will not talk about the exact number of troops or plans for wider military action. From now on, the situation in the battlefield will determine our strategy. US enemies should never be aware of our plans.” At the time being, the United States has about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan, and US military commanders have claimed that sending a few thousand new troops could put an end to the current stalemate in the battle against the Taliban. The main role of the new forces will be counter-terrorism operations and training Afghan forces.
2. Increasing the authority of the army
The biggest military change announced by Trump for the war in Afghanistan is to give US military commanders more authority to attack the Taliban and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan. After increasing the role of Afghan forces in the war against the Taliban, the Obama administration imposed restrictions on US offensive operations in Afghanistan, which affected the performance of army commanders. Trump stated in this regard that the management of the battle from Washington cannot lead to victory in the war, and therefore the commanders of the army will be given more authority to act on the basis of the conditions on the ground and to target terrorist networks throughout Afghanistan, if the need arises.
3. Holding political talks
The ultimate objective of Trump’s strategy in Afghanistan is to force the Taliban to come to the negotiating table in order to reach a political solution to the Afghan war. That is exactly the same as Obama’s objective, but there is a key difference: no deadlines for withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan have been set. In this regard, Trump has pointed to the ineffectiveness of US policy during the Obama era in announcing the official start date or the end of US military operations. Republicans also criticized Obama’s policy of official withdrawal of the US forces. However, in spite of referring to a political solution in Afghanistan, Trump has expressed doubts about Taliban’s readiness for talks.
4. Change in Pakistan’s policies
All US presidents, including Trump, have pointed out the need for bringing about a change in Pakistan’s policies towards the terrorists. The US military has consistently criticized the role which Pakistan plays in providing shelter for the Haqqani Network. Trump talked of possible cessation of US aid and support for Pakistan in order to force the country to help counter terrorism in Afghanistan. He reiterated that as long as Pakistan shelters terrorists who are at war with the United States, aid will be cut off immediately. Trump also talked about India’s role as Pakistan’s nuclear rival in the Afghan war, saying that India should provide economic assistance in the Afghan war.
- Achieving victory instead of nation-building
The focus of the Obama administration in Afghanistan was to put an end to the mission of the US forces. However, Trump emphasizes the need for victory in Afghanistan: “We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition. Attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing Al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.” However, Trump’s most important policy regarding the Afghan war was to keep US forces from being involved in nation building. He emphasized that from now on, the US military capability will not be devoted to establishing democracy in faraway lands or the processes of nation building in other countries based on the American perspective.
Some changes made to the strategy adopted by previous US governments
1.Unlike Obama, Trump has agreed with the army commanders to increase the number of US troops in Afghanistan, and about 4,000 new troops will be deployed to Afghanistan (some former military commanders, such as the retired four-star Army General Jack Keane, believes that deploying more troops to Afghanistan will not have a decisive impact on the war process). On the other hand, stepping up US military’s military operations in Afghanistan and giving special powers to the military commanders could lead to the discontent of Afghan government and the people. Therefore, this will undermine the political solution which Trump has in mind, and has been considered as one of the main goals of the new American strategy in Afghanistan. Of course, new troops will mostly have a non-combat mission and will focus on training and helping the Afghan army to effectively deal with the Taliban and other terrorist groups.
2. Following American experience in the Iraq war, American policymakers concluded that, from then on, US military operations should have achievable goals, a specific timeframe and a clear strategy for the end of the operations. Failure to set these parameters led to George Bush’s grave mistake in Iraq. For this reason, Obama was very cautious to avoid a similar mistake. However, it seems that in the new Trump strategy towards Afghanistan, this mistake has resurfaced and the above-mentioned parameters have been ignored.
3.Trump has laid emphasis on the fact that America will no longer pursue the process of nation-building in other countries, including Afghanistan. This move could play into the hands of the Taliban and could be to the detriment of the Afghan government. This could create a safe haven for the emergence and activity of terrorist groups. Of course, in his remarks, Tillerson emphasized the commitment of the United States to continue helping Afghanistan in the process of institutionalization through different approaches that do not require heavy US spending. However, it is not yet clear what forms these different approaches will take.
Lack of fundamental changes in the new US strategy in Afghanistan
Trump has remarked that the US main goal is to fight terrorism and kill terrorists, which is not fundamentally different from the Obama administration’s strategy in Afghanistan. Military analysts believe that the new US strategy in Afghanistan is not primarily designed to achieve a quick and decisive victory. Rather, even training Afghan soldiers to confront the Taliban and to reclaim the occupied territories will take several years. Philip Carter, a former advisor to the US Department of Defense, believes, “Trump’s new strategy for Afghanistan does not provide any details on the objectives and the way to accomplish them. In fact, the strategy lacks the elements that are considered vital for a coherent and precise strategy of war.” In this regard, Seth Jones at Rand Corporation said, “I do not think that the impact of the new Trump administration’s policy on Afghanistan will be significant. Rather, it could at least be a message to the Taliban and the people in the region that the United States is not currently planning to withdraw troops”. Trump’s commitment to Obama’s strategy and the continuation of the war that he had previously considered as wasteful of US resources could be a major victory for White House’s “Realists”, including Herbert McMaster and James Mattis as senior military commanders. It is also backtracking from Trump’s and his sacked senior advisor’s policy (i.e., Steve Bannon) of “America First”.
US partners’ views toward Trump’s strategy
In a statement, NATO Secretary of State, Jens Stoltenberg, praised the new US strategy towards Afghanistan: “NATO is fully committed to Afghanistan. And I will talk with James Mattiss and NATO’s international partners on this. NATO partners are committed to increasing their presence in Afghanistan, to more than the current figure of 12,000 ” Of course, NATO strategists and planners are still unaware of the details of the new Trump strategy: whether the newly-recruited forces will be under NATO’s Joint Command or under a separate US Army’s command. NATO members traditionally wait for US actions and then, organize their commitments and actions accordingly. In fact, other NATO members will not take action until the number of US troops in Afghanistan becomes known. US partners and allies have serious doubts about the feasibility of the new US strategy in Afghanistan, which, coupled with Trump’s unfriendly relations with NATO, could lead to a lack of procurement of troops on the part of US allies for the war in Afghanistan.
In this regard, Bruno Letteh, a NATO expert says, “Nearly a thousand European soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan so far. Europe is not optimistic about the outcome and assesses the future of Afghanistan as being uncertain. Therefore, neither politicians nor public opinion in Europe supports raising European military commitment in Afghanistan. On the other hand, Europe intends to step up efforts to carry out the process of nation-building in Afghanistan, while Trump expressly opposes this approach.” German Defense Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, said that the country does not have a positive attitude towards increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan: “We increased our troops in Afghanistan by 18% last year, while other countries reduced their troops. Therefore, Germany will not be the first in the line of the countries which should increase the number of troops in Afghanistan.” The United Kingdom and other NATO members will be pushed to do as US does and increase the number of their troops in Afghanistan to a figure higher the current figure of 6500.
The Role of some Countries in new US strategy toward Afghanistan
In spite of Trump’s reference to Pakistan and India as two key players in Afghanistan, there is no mention of two important and influential countries (i.e., China and Russia) and their supporting Pakistan, in the new US strategy.
Trump clearly considers Pakistan as part of the problem, not part of the solution in Afghanistan, which has brought about the negative reaction of Pakistani authorities. While the Obama administration considered Pakistan as a country having shared goals with the United States in Afghanistan, and regarded Pakistan and Afghanistan as two main victims of terrorism in the region, the Trump administration is trying to change US policy towards Pakistan, as it is believed to be undermining peace process in Afghanistan. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution believes that the Trump strategy for Pakistan must involve a carrot and stick approach in order to encourage Pakistan to play the role which the United States would like it to play in Afghanistan. If the United States intends to significantly scale down relations with Pakistan, this will definitely contribute to widespread instability in South Asia and exacerbation of regional issues that Trump actually seeks to address.
Increased economic ties and strategic partnerships between Pakistan and China have reduced US influence over Pakistan, while US needs for supply routes through Pakistan have intensified since December 2014, which has been due to the closure of Northern supply routes by Russia. Given the hostile relations between Iran and the United States, Pakistan is the only way to transfer US and NATO resources to Afghanistan. An increase in US pressure on Pakistan consistent with a new US strategy could lead to a lack of Pakistan’s participation in the Afghan peace process and once US troops withdraw from Afghanistan, Pakistan would have the upper hand. Moreover, Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for the Near East believes that the success of the new US strategy towards Afghanistan and its approach to Pakistan depends a lot on the support provided by Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates”. In his remarks, Trump made no reference to the Middle East, and in particular to Iran, which has a common border with Afghanistan, while South Asian countries seem to play a special role in the Trump administration’s strategy for Afghanistan. Trump’s negative stance toward Pakistan can make the role of such countries as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as Pakistan’s close allies, more prominent in advancing the new US strategy.
The Trump administration ‘s policy based on giving a wider role to India in Afghanistan, has largely been aimed at pressuring Pakistan. India’s key interests lie in the support for the Afghan government and promoting its relations with this country. Of course, India is also considering the possibility that its presence in Afghanistan, with obvious and serious support by the United States, could lead to Pakistan’s negative reaction to India’s interests in Afghanistan. The new US strategy, which lays special emphasis on India’s role in Afghanistan, can dramatically change the geopolitical coexistence of the South Asian region. This strategy will definitely strengthen the China-Pakistan partnership and intensify the differences that these two countries already have with Afghanistan and India. Indeed, the Trump administration’s strategy will focus on cutting back on financial support for Pakistan, while at the same time strengthening strategic partnership with India and military and security cooperation with this country.
Russia, China and Iran
Russia clearly prefers the Taliban to other terrorist groups such as ISIS in Afghanistan, and there are reports that Russian military equipment is being supplied to the Taliban. In addition to its growing ties with Pakistan, China has both security and economic interests in Afghanistan. Members of the Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan who seek to establish an independent state in China’s Shin Chiang province have long-standing relationships with Afghan armed groups. Excluding these countries along with Iran, which has key interests in Afghanistan, as well as Arab states in the Persian Gulf region, which fund al-Qaeda and ISIS in Afghanistan, is a major weakness of the US strategy towards Afghanistan. On the other hand, Russia assesses ISIS’s increased presence in Afghanistan as a danger, and is therefore likely to strengthen the Taliban to strike a balance. In the event of intensified US pressure and strengthening its military presence in Afghanistan, Iran, Russia and China, as neighbors of Afghanistan, will adopt common approaches to the US war, which can lead to increased US-NATO presence in Afghanistan. Following the announcement of new US strategy toward Afghanistan, Sergey Lavrof, Russian Foreign Minister, said, “The new US strategy in Afghanistan has no chance of being successful, because it mainly focuses on the use of force. The main focus of this strategy is to achieve victory through the use of force, which cannot be successful. The strategy also emphasizes the unconditional talks with the Taliban, which is obvious backtracking, and clearly contradicts the limits set by the United Nations Security Council because the Security Council has set preconditions for talks with the Taliban such as cessation of armed operations and recognition of Afghanistan’s Constitution by the latter, which is not in line with the new US strategy.”
Geopolitically, Afghanistan is a very important country and the United States is not willing to lose it at all. It is the focus of attention of three countries: Russia, China and America. Afghanistan has borders with the Muslim regions of China and Sunni regions of Iran, which the United States can easily use to exert pressure on the governments of these countries. For this same reason, Republicans who have always sought aggressive policies against countries, have vehemently criticized and opposed US troops withdrawal from Afghanistan. Therefore, after Republicans’ gaining more power in the Congress and following the formation of the Republican government, they have pushed for increased military budget and spending in Afghanistan in US policies, as well as an increase in the presence of troops in Afghanistan. American think tanks have come to the conclusion that one of the ways to exert pressure on the three countries mentioned above, especially China and Iran, is to increase the presence in Afghanistan. In fact, these ideas gained momentum when, over the past few years, Russia and China became more active in Afghanistan. As a result, the expectation is that in the future, no matter what government is in power in the White House, US policies in Afghanistan will be based on increased presence to reduce the strength of its rivals.