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Geopolitics & Security

US Policy in Afghanistan: What to Expect from Trump

Commentary6th February 2017

Chapter 1


In his inauguration speech, President Donald Trump vowed to 'eradicate radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth.' At the same time, he has expressed a desire to draw back US presence in conflict zones where the US is engaged in fighting Islamist extremists. When it comes to Afghanistan, where the US has long been involved in efforts against the Taliban, the president has said little publicly regarding future policy, though a recent report indicates he told Kabul he would consider a troop increase.

Can Trump scale back involvement in Afghanistan while keeping his inauguration pledge? And how would a decrease in US involvement affect the situation on the ground? Three analysts weigh in.

A US drawdown would worsen Afghanistan’s crisis

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

Though President Donald Trump vowed to "eradicate radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth" in his inaugural address, I would not take that promise as a pledge against which his administration's efforts can be judged. There are serious questions about whether violent jihadism can ever be fully eradicated "from the face of the earth" (as opposed to being reduced from a serious strategic challenge to a more marginal problem), but even if one thinks this is possible, it's not going to happen in four or eight years. There are too many hot spots where jihadis control territory or have significant operating space — including Iraq, Syria, Libya, Mali, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Somalia — and too many challenges are associated with each of these theatres, and others, to make Trump's statement anything but a rhetorical flourish.

Understanding Afghanistan as part of this problem set, the effect of a decrease in US involvement would, bluntly, be to pull the Band-Aid back from Afghanistan's problems. It would bleed out more quickly.

Bill Roggio recently detailed the escalating pace at which the government in Kabul is losing ground to the insurgency. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has documented, Roggio writes, that Kabul now "controls or influences just 52 percent of the nation's districts today compared to 72 percent" in November 2015. This bleak situation will grow markedly worse, and quickly, with a US drawdown.

But simply leaving troops in the country will not do the trick. The growing losses there to the Taliban insurgency are happening despite the current US troop presence, and the US' Afghanistan policy has been functionally adrift since the end of US General McChrystal's surge period, when 33,000 US troops were deployed. Keeping the fight away from the headlines is not a viable political or military strategy. American political leadership has seemingly decided that it does not want to lose in Afghanistan, but is not willing to make the commitments necessary to win.

This listlessness is emblematic of the broader US strategy in its fight against major transnational jihadi organisations. Whether you are optimistic about the Trump presidency or believe it will be a disaster, there is promise — as well as peril, of course — in how it represents a break from business as usual. Whether this break will result, in this administration or another, in processes and thinking that can more effectively tackle the growing challenge posed by violent non-state actors remains to be seen. But we are all players in that tale.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Chief Executive Officer of Valens Global.

There are two sides to the Afghan coin

Thomas Ruttig

Afghanistan seems to feature on the new US administration's political agenda only as a possible theatre for making true on the vow, from Trump's inauguration speech, to "eradicate radical Islamic terrorism." What that might look like, the already controversial 29 January anti-al-Qaida raid in Yemendemonstrated – including the number of civilian casualties caused and the not too apologetic White House reaction to this fact.

Although it is the arena of America's longest war, analysts had to rely for months on old tweets and side remarks during his election campaign to read the new US president's possible intentions on Afghanistan. In a 2015 CNN interview, he "begrudgingly" admitted that he might need to keep troops in the country. He reportedly reiterated that position on the phone with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in December 2016.

Begrudgingly or not, this looks like continuity of a policy that has not worked. Even 140,000 western troops were unable to defeat the Taliban. Instead, their pounding forged them into what US intelligence analysis repeatedly called a "resilient" force that made significant gains in 2015 and 2016. Only fighting and even defeating them would not do the trick if the Trump administration wants to prevent the country from turning back into a terrorists' haven. It is even doubtful that the Taliban is the right target; the group would likely not host international jihadi terrorists ever again – the last thing it would like, if coming to power again, is the attention of the outside world.

The other side of the coin if Washington pulls the financial plug for the most aid-dependent country in the world is not even state breakdown. The danger is that its fragmented elites would continue haggling over which faction gets which position in the still highly ineffective, corrupt, and disunited 'unity government' – instead of addressing the biggest problem of all, that Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries on earth, with the poverty gap deepening, despite the post-2001 one trillion dollar investment by the international community.

This is linked to a lack of functioning institutions, the third dimension in Afghanistan's systemic crisis. Although the holding of elections had been a (somewhat superficial) yardstick for Afghanistan's progress over the past 17 years, it has been neglected that by June 2015 parliamentary polls should have been held. A realistic date is not on the horizon even now. Afghanistan runs the risk of becoming a facade democracy even less responsible to its electorate.

The nitty-gritty detail of a policy to fix this cannot be conducted through the remote control of a drone.

Thomas Ruttig is a co-director and senior analyst of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (Kabul/Berlin).

Trump may just might provide fresh thinking on Afghanistan

Milo Comerford

Whilst Donald Trump's promise to "eradicate radical Islamic terrorism" raised some eyebrows in the analyst community, more alarming for the future of Afghanistan is the president's inaugural pledge to reassess "subsidising the armies of other countries" and "defending other nations' borders while refusing to defend our own."

There exists an incongruity in prioritising the defeat of extremism, while seemingly declaring intent to draw back support for countries battling the very insurgencies that breed this global phenomenon. It remains to be seen what Trump's yo-yo-ing between hawkish assertiveness and skeptical isolationism means for America's 'long war' in Afghanistan.

But the election of Trump also opens up a new geopolitical paradigm that could provide new opportunities for peace in Afghanistan. His vow to "reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilised world" was widely seen as being a nod to closer alliances with Russia in countering extremism. Although Syria has commanded the headlines, this possibility is especially relevant for Afghanistan, where Russia has substantially increased its engagement with the Taliban, still the main enemy of the US-backed administration, to curve the power of ISIS in its Central Asian sphere of influence.

While some observers are framing such machinations as a reboot of the 'Great Game' for geopolitical capital in the region, it is conceivable that closer counter-extremism ties with Russia, alongside unprecedented weakness in the jihadi movement's leadership, may in fact hasten appetite for a Taliban peace deal.

Trump's relationship with Pakistan will prove hugely influential for his Afghanistan strategy. The profound interconnection of militancy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region means that effective collaboration with Islamabad will be instrumental to tackling the Taliban, and to a lesser extent, ISIS, threat. The new president has called Pakistan and its citizens "beautiful" in a call to Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, setting a new course from his Republican predecessors, and both countries are notable in their absence from the recent refugee ban.

However, it is ultimately Trump's very unpredictability that is encouraging some on the ground in Afghanistan. America's longest war requires fresh thinking, and for many, a Trump administration might provide just that.

Milo Comerford leads research on the South and Central Asia region at the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, as well as research development globally.

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

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