US President Donald Trump unveiled his Afghan policy on August 21, 2017, announcing to ramp up the war effort in Afghanistan. The policy is in sharp contrast to his electoral promises of complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. For Trump, Afghanistan is too important and dangerous to be left alone to its own devices.
Afghanistan is one of the major foreign policy challenges that President Trump inherited from his predecessor. His new Afghan policy will have domestic political ramifications for him among his electorates who expected him to disengage from Afghanistan. He has done the opposite. Certainly, Trump’s new Afghan policy will not bail him out of his political troubles at home which has seen several White House officials dismissed from their positions.
The renewed military efforts under the Trump administration marks the third phase of post-9/11 war in Afghanistan. The first phase was under the Bush administration when the Taliban regime was ousted from power in 2001. The second phase of war began under the Obama administration that went for troop surge in 2009 with a view to explore a diplomatic solution and then pull out of troops at the end of 2014.
The US policy choices in Afghanistan range from bad (moderate troop surge to postpone the defeat) to worst (complete withdrawal precipitating immediate defeat) and President Trump has opted for the former. While Trump’s Afghan policy is a departure from his predecessor’s approach in its boldness, the broad parameters remain more or less the same. Apparently, the tone and tenor of the new policy is quite Clausewitzian in trying to combine military, political, and diplomatic components, but in reality, it is only the military component that is preponderant.
The key features of Trump’s Afghan policy are based on a condition-based approach instead of a calendar-driven policy: no more peace talks with the Taliban; holding Pakistan accountable for providing sanctuaries to the Afghan militant groups; working closely with India to stabilize Afghanistan; and deployments of an additional 4,000 US troops. The addition of 4,000 troops will take the total number of foreign troops in Afghanistan to 15,000 (12,000 US and 3,000 NATO) who will advise, assist and train the Afghan forces. Moreover, the US’ open-ended commitment to Kabul will ease some pressure on the embattled National Unity Government (NUG) of Ashraf Ghani.
The policy seems to be a compromise between President Trump (who wanted complete withdrawal) and his generals (who wanted to ramp up the war effort in Afghanistan). The policy lacks articulation on how its various components will break the strategic deadlock in Afghanistan, stabilize the deteriorating security situation, and improve the prospects for peace building. It raises more questions than answers. For instance, it is not clear what outcomes the Trump administration aims to achieve in Afghanistan by implementing the new strategy.
Despite a more assertive tone and a muscular outlook, Trump’s Afghan policy exposes Washington’s policy paralysis and lack of imagination and viable political options. It guarantees neither a decisive victory nor military gains significant enough to force the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. President Obama, more or less, did the same during the final months of his administration. Obama’s original plan was to reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan to 1,000 to protect the US embassy in Kabul, but he twice modified the planned reduction on the advice of his military advisors to leave more troops in deployment.
Afghanistan needs intensified political and diplomatic efforts to explore a negotiated settlement of the conflict. On the contrary, President Trump has further militarized the conflict, which is a recipe for endless war. From the strategic point of view, indefinite commitment to a protracted and asymmetrical war is a poor policy choice. A military strategy is employed to create favorable conditions which can be exploited politically. However, it is unclear how this policy of militarization will create a political opening. It does not take rocket science to understand that 15,000 foreign troops will not be able to achieve what 150,000 NATO/ISAF forces could not achieve barring a few tactical victories.
With its new Afghan policy, the Trump administration can manage the conflict in Afghanistan but cannot resolve it.
President Trump’s policy pronouncement is clear indication that Washington is scaling down its commitment from stabilizing Afghanistan to preventing a terrorist attack on US soil originating from Afghanistan. The issue with this kind of muddled mind-set is that preventing Afghanistan from turning into a fertile ground for terrorist groups requires nation building which the Trump administration is shying away from. Unfortunately, as long as the government in Kabul remains dysfunctional, the Taliban will remain a hard reality.
Ideally, an overall political strategy is required for Afghanistan, which should have guided its military component, among others. Instead, Washington has outsourced its Afghan policy to the Pentagon, opting for a militarized policy that offers very little hope for conflict resolution. At best, President Trump’s new Afghan policy will deny the Taliban an outright military victory. At worst, it will further harden the Taliban’s insurgent attacks and fuel fresh recruitment.
The Trump administration has taken an oversimplified and static view of a very complicated, dynamic, and fluid regional issue that has changed dramatically since the President’s inauguration in January 2017. The Afghan Taliban have diversified the regional linkages minimizing their sole dependence on Pakistan.
Today, the Taliban have a working relationship with Iran and Russia, and to a lesser extent with Beijing. Islamabad, Tehran, and Moscow consider the continued US military presence in Afghanistan a threat to their security, and also consider it detrimental to their regional interests. So, while the Trump administration has taken a tough line on Pakistan for providing sanctuaries to the Taliban, it has fallen short of pointing out the support for the latter from Russia and Iran.
Scapegoating Pakistan for its policy failures in Afghanistan will not ease the US predicament in Afghanistan. Certainly, the buck does not stop at Islamabad. It is rather ironic that with its less than half-hearted commitment, Washington expects Islamabad to do more, while it is the former who needs to do more.
The hard-line towards Pakistan is not going to change its Afghan policy. On the contrary, the increased Indian engagement in Afghanistan, as envisaged by President Trump in his speech, will further strengthen Islamabad’s threat perception and add to its strategic anxiety. Consequently, Islamabad will continue to pursue a policy that aims to minimize the Indian influence in Afghanistan to avoid strategic encirclement.
The US can ensure desirable cooperation from Pakistan when it addresses its security concerns in Afghanistan. Giving India a larger role in Afghanistan runs contrary to that and will fuel India-Pakistan proxy war in the region, which will complicate the already deadlocked conflict. Ideally, US should initiate robust regional diplomacy to create a win-win for India and Pakistan to overcome regional irritants to focus on breaking the stalemate in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, the end game in Afghanistan has become more uncertain with no end in sight to the US’ longest war. With its new Afghan policy, the Trump administration can manage the conflict in Afghanistan but cannot resolve it. Consequently, the current status quo in Afghanistan is likely to persist. Notwithstanding its recent battlefield gains, the Taliban will not win and Kabul will not lose, despite the breakdown of governance and the economic meltdown.
The dormant Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), comprising of China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and US, is the right diplomatic forum to reinitiate the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process. Closing doors on political option to pacify the conflict in Afghanistan will not help the US war effort.