On Monday night, President Donald Trump announced his decision on US strategy for ‘Afghanistan and South Asia’. Trump named three strategic ‘pillars’. First, the refusal to set time limits on US engagement in Afghanistan—a clear departure from President Obama’s approach. Second, the ‘integration’ of diplomatic, economic, and military instruments of American power. Third, ensuring Pakistan no longer provides haven to terrorists. Glaringly, Trump neglected to mention how many troops he would send to Afghanistan, but prior reporting suggests the number will be an additional 4,000 on top of the 8,400 currently deployed there.
Trump’s decision was long overdue. The Pentagon completed a broad review of Afghanistan policy in early May, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis initially anticipated a decision in time for that month’s NATO summit. Trump demurred, and in June, Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that a strategy would be in place by mid-July. Instead, Trump sought to evade responsibility by granting Mattis authority to determine US troop levels in Afghanistan, up to an additional 3,900. Mattis cannily declined to exercise that authority, stating that he would wait for strategic direction from the president.
The generals—Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and Chief of Staff John Kelly—brought Trump to the decision kicking and screaming, assisted by Vice President Mike Pence. Before becoming president, Trump dismissed ongoing US involvement in Afghanistan, tweeting in 2013, ‘Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there’. Trump’s scepticism endures. As recently as last week, Trump was considering a proposal by Erik Prince, founder of the notorious Blackwater private military company, to outsource Afghanistan’s security to mercenaries. Recently ousted White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon was the main advocate of this option, and Prince was expected to attend the meeting on Afghanistan strategy at Camp David last Friday before McMaster put the kibosh on his invitation.
Privatising the war would have jeopardised the United States’ relationship with the Afghan government, and the claimed economic savings were dubious; Mattis, McMaster and Kelly all hated the idea. Swift withdrawal from Afghanistan, on the other hand, would create a security vacuum and possibly trigger the collapse of the Afghan government. A realist might not consider that such a bad thing: American geopolitical interests in Afghanistan are limited and terrorist networks have found other havens to operate from. After 16 years of fighting, however, the return of Taliban rule offering protection to al-Qaeda would be politically intolerable—especially for a president obsessed with ‘winning’. Most of Trump’s advisers, and eventually Trump, therefore saw continuing with more or less the same strategy, but with a significantly larger troop commitment, as the only credible strategy.
Obama left Trump a lousy hand in Afghanistan. The US troop drawdown, from over 100,000 in 2011 to 8400 at the end of 2016, was too rapid for Afghan forces to fill the void. The Taliban has resurged to control or influence 11% of Afghan districts and contest another 29%. In February, General John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, advised Congress that thousands more troops were needed to train and advise Afghan brigades if they were to reverse Taliban gains. Afghan ground forces are also in desperate need of US airpower: the Afghan air force acquired its first fighter planes only last year. Trump’s decision to give commanders greater freedom to conduct air missions will help immediately in this regard. Nonetheless, Afghanistan’s military is unlikely to be able to maintain security in the country on its own before 2020.
Defeating insurgent forces within Afghanistan will mean little, however, if they continue to find safe haven in Pakistan. Trump was vague about what measures he would take to convince Pakistan to change its behaviour, but it is likely to involve either ending military aid or even imposing economic sanctions. In July, Mattis withheld $50 million in military aid from Pakistan for its failure to adequately address the Haqqani network, an affiliate of the Taliban responsible for the bombing in Kabul this year that killed over 150 people. Stronger action will need to be taken to adjust the calculus of Pakistani military and intelligence leaders, who see Afghanistan through the prism of their rivalry with India. Trump’s inclusion of India in his strategy for Afghanistan is wise, although Trump’s comments came across as more of an economic threat to India.
Trump disavowed state building in his speech, but Afghanistan cannot maintain security without addressing corruption and the poor living conditions of Afghan people. The government in Kabul remains unstable—the vice president is in self-imposed exile in Turkey following allegations of rape and torture and has created a new coalition in opposition to President Ashraf Ghani. A significantly greater diplomatic effort is needed to improve Afghanistan’s governance and maintain peace among competing political interests and, eventually, to reach a settlement with the Taliban. Unfortunately, this is hampered by the US State Department’s ongoing dysfunction under Rex Tillerson, including the termination of the position of special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Trump’s strategy is essentially a continuation of the status quo, but with a much-needed reinforcement of the under-resourced mission to train and advise Afghan forces. Getting tougher on Pakistan is not a new idea, and it remains to be seen what precise measures Trump intends to take. The crucial test will be whether Trump can fulfill his promise of integrating diplomatic and economic instruments to complement the US military mission. Unfortunately, it appears that much less thought has been given to that ‘pillar’.
Cameron Steer is the United States Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.