Few knew what to expect as Donald Trump stood before an audience of US soldiers to announce his administration’s policy toward Afghanistan and South Asia, given his repeated calls in the past for a US withdrawal from Afghanistan and a shocking response to the violent acts of neo-Nazis and the KKK in Charlottesville, Virginia, a few days earlier on August 15.
In fact, while wrapped in his trademark hyperbole, the president’s comments outlined a reasonable way forward. He supported a conditions-based rather than calendar-driven approach to America’s troop presence, correctly not specifying an exact number of new forces. Trump was right to say that “the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable,” and so he called for US forces to focus on the counter-terrorism mission while providing more training and operational support for Afghan forces. While calling for an “integrated” approach to the region, Trump left to others the arduous task of shaping and implementing diplomatic and military details.
On July 20 in YaleGlobal, we highlighted five questions we thought the Trump administration should address about Afghanistan. The president’s address on August 21 dealt with most of them.
1) What is the US mission in Afghanistan?
US forces are in Afghanistan, Trump said, to prevent “the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America” by “obliterating ISIS” and “crushing Al Qaeda” while providing more training and operational support for Afghan forces. Trump added that US troops would seek to prevent the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, saying that “strategically applied force” could encourage a political settlement with the Taliban. American soldiers will have the mandate to do more in support of Afghan operations against the Taliban.
2) Will more US troops encourage other nations to send more soldiers?
Trump said that the United States will ask NATO allies and partners for more troops and funding. Sadly, he did so without recognising the substantial human and material sacrifices others have made in Afghanistan. So far, NATO allies have supported America’s new policy but have lowered expectations of additional troop commitments. Germany’s Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said she did not see Germany “in the front row of people who should be asked for more soldiers” since Germany increased its troops there by 18% in 2016, bringing the German contingent to 980. Italy, with more than 800 troops in Afghanistan, declined to comment. The British, too, appear unlikely to increase their commitment of 600 troops. Whether the Australians will send additional forces is an open question.
3) Is the Kabul government up to the task of leading its armed forces against a committed insurgency?
Trump emphasised his high expectations that Afghan leaders take ownership of their country’s future. In a positive sign, President Ashraf Ghani recently agreed to a new “compact” for wide-ranging reforms. Afghan CEO Abdullah Abdullah welcomed Trump’s rejection of further US efforts for nation-building. That’s “our job,” he said.
4) Will the nations of the larger region play a constructive role to contribute to a secure Afghanistan and stable region?
The president condemned Pakistan for its support for extremists, saying “no partnership can survive a country’s harbouring of militants and terrorists who target US service members and officials.” Trump invited India to “help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.” The address did not mention China, Russia or Iran, all countries with significant influence in the region and facing varying levels of criticism from Trump in the past.
Pakistani leaders condemned Trump’s “false narrative” of safe havens. Prime Minister Shahid Abbasi’s office called for “immediate US efforts” to target terrorists on Afghan soil and deplored “Indian policies inimical to peace in the region.”
Indian officials welcomed Trump’s “determination to enhance efforts to overcome the challenges facing Afghanistan.” Playing up Beijing’s role as Pakistan’s “all-weather friend,” Chinese Foreign Minister Yang asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a phone call to “attach importance to Pakistan’s important role in Afghanistan and respect Pakistan’s sovereignty and legitimate security concerns.”
5) Can an increase in US troops and more intense engagement in the fighting create conditions for a peace settlement among Afghans?
“Someday,” Trump said, “after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.” His language recognizes the reality of Taliban’s current strategy, which is to fight on all fronts, including merciless attacks on civilians. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid warned that that if the United States didn’t withdraw its troops, “soon Afghanistan will become another graveyard for this superpower in the 21st century.”
As Henry Kissinger reminds us in World Order, while “Americans hold that every problem has a solution; Chinese think that each solution is an admission ticket to a new set of problems.” As we move forward with a new approach to Afghanistan, new questions will appear.
Can the United States walk the fine line the president staked out on Pakistan? More troops in Afghanistan mean continued reliance on the ground and air lines of communication which run through and over Pakistan to supply them. Pakistan and the United States will continue to face common threats, such as Al Qaeda, which require close cooperation. Trump’s hardline on Pakistan was short on details, and Americans will need to see whether the follow-through – be it possible cuts in assistance, threats of sanctions, or more – change Pakistan’s posture toward extremism.
Can US forces advance Afghan efforts on the battlefield without appropriating the Afghans’ struggle against the Taliban? American generals and soldiers will wrestle with this dilemma as they determine how often to conduct airstrikes on Taliban targets, at what levels of the Afghan military our troops will be embedded, and when to let partners wage operations on their own. There is a danger of American mission creep. It will be critical to continue to encourage Afghan ownership of their fight.
Can the president enlist the support of China, Iran, Russia and the Central Asian states – all required – to build regional support for peace in Afghanistan? A diplomatic strategy to end the war is the most essential thing to get right. This requires investing in the complex work of encouraging a regional consensus for peace in Afghanistan and deploying political capital at leadership levels to support US policy. In the face of what seems like an administration effort to deconstruct the State Department, will US diplomats have the capacity to pursue the diplomatic strategy in the area needed to support US forces in the field and ultimately end the war?
Finally, will the president follow through on the outlined strategy? Things will certainly go wrong in Afghanistan, some of them very quickly and with great human costs. Americans, US allies, and friends will wonder which President Trump delivered the Afghanistan speech, and any uncertainty about US commitment will undermine the strategy. Is the president committed to the policy he announced on August 21, or is another shift simply a tweet away?
This article first appeared on Yale Global Online.