Strategy? What Strategy? Trump’s New Approach to Afghanistan Is No Game-Changer

After many months of deliberation, President Donald Trump last Monday night presented his eagerly anticipated strategy on Afghanistan and South Asia (sort of). In the event, much of what he said lacked detail: He neither signaled a plan for ending U.S. military engagement in the country (albeit deliberately) nor offered fresh impetus for a solution to the Afghan conflict. Sadly, it is unlikely to be a game-changer.

President Trump’s speech, and consequently his strategy, appears to focus on a number of key areas: first, an end to timelines for U.S. troop withdrawal (thus raising concerns of an indefinite war); second, greater operational capacity for U.S. troops focused on “killing terrorists,” which, therefore, third, appears to rule out attempts to engage in nation-building; and, finally, a regional approach encompassing a hard-line stance on Pakistan and the expectation of “more” support from India. So, on the surface at least, nothing particularly groundbreaking.

One tangible difference in the new strategy involves doing away with “arbitrary timetables.” The acknowledgement that troop withdrawal deadlines are problematic and the demonstration of prolonged commitment to Afghanistan will be welcome in Kabul. The previous 2014 deadline for troop drawdown has been blamed for encouraging the Taliban to “wait it out” rather than enter into a peace process. To what extent will this move concern the Taliban, which has outlasted a 16-year-long offensive and recaptured vast swathes of Afghan territory? Its reaction was swift, condemning the decision and warning Trump that Afghanistan would be the “graveyard of the U.S. empire.”

In reality, however, Trump’s rhetoric regarding “terrorist and criminal networks” is not much different from the targeted raids that are already being undertaken in Afghanistan; and many of these are focused on eliminating successive leaders of the Islamic State group, or ISIS, that rival the Taliban’s. In fact, the decision could even work in the Taliban’s favor: The movement has always proved adept at using the presence of foreign troops to mobilize support, with the issue of civilian casualties caused by foreign troops a valuable recruiting tool.

A key aspect of the Taliban’s success lies not so much in popular support for them but in the unpopularity of others, including the Afghan government. Yet, Trump asserts that the U.S. will not engage in nation-building, appearing to prefer a counterterrorism response. This ignores the fact that although international nation-building efforts in Afghanistan (and Iraq) have clearly been found wanting, U.S. national security interests are essentially dependent on the creation of a legitimate state that can effectively deny the space for criminal and armed groups.

Embattled from the outset, the National Unity Government appears to be unraveling, with infighting proving to be destabilizing at both the central and provincial levels. Perhaps recognizing this, and slightly contradicting the president, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in his press briefing the following day stated that the U.S. will continue to help Afghanistan institutionally, using “different approaches and not putting so much of the U.S. taxpayer dollar on the ground.” Again, there is no real clarity about what these ‘different’ approaches might be. One can only hope that at the center is an appreciation that it is a lack of government legitimacy and not only the “terrorists” that are the key issues in Afghanistan’s prolonged warfare.

Trump also emphasized the role of regional actors, specifically Pakistan and India, in resolving the situation in Afghanistan. Though harsh, Trump’s view on Pakistan, referring to no longer accepting the provision of “safe havens for terrorist organizations,” essentially carried forward a position held by the Obama administration. On the other hand, his incorporation of the U.S.-India trade relationship in an attempt to leverage greater Indian support in Afghanistan introduces a new dimension to bilateral cooperation and is unlikely to win support.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, India is already the largest contributor of development aid to Afghanistan in the region. In addition, since 2001, more than 4,000 Afghan army officers have trained in India, and in 2016, India supplied much needed Mi-25 helicopters to the country. India will likely continue its engagement in Afghanistan per its own interests, rather than in response to Trump’s call to help “more” because “India makes billions of dollars in trade,” particularly as Trump neglected to specify what he meant by “help more.”

Donald Trump President Donald Trump delivers remarks on America’s military involvement in Afghanistan at the Fort Myer Army Base, in Arlington, Virginia, on August 21. Mark Wilson/Getty

India has also long recognized, even if President Trump does not, that Pakistan is apprehensive about Indian involvement in Afghanistan. By chiding Pakistan and simultaneously inviting India to play a larger role, Trump elicited bipartisan disapproval from within Pakistan. At the same time, punitive measures such as the withholding of Coalition Support Funds reimbursements, both during the Obama and the Trump administrations, have not had the desired effect on Pakistani behavior. U.S. Department of State counterterrorism reports note that the Taliban and Haqqani Network continue to operate from havens in Pakistan, while earlier this month, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, proscribed by both the United Nations and Pakistan, launched a political party.

Although the hard line on Pakistan may have been necessary, Trump’s rhetoric failed to take into account two other regional players, China and Russia, and their support for Pakistan. Pakistan’s expanding economic and strategic relationship with China has likely decreased U.S. leverage over Pakistan, whereas U.S. reliance on Pakistan as a supply route has spiked once again in recent years following Russia’s closure of the Northern Distribution Network once the ISAF military mission ended in December 2014. With U.S.-Iranian relations seriously strained, Pakistan remains the only feasible route for overland supplies into Afghanistan. Coercive means, such as imposing sanctions on Pakistani government officials and revoking Pakistan’s non-NATO ally status, have been mentioned by members of the Trump administration, but could well be costly gambles at this stage.

What was expected from Trump was a more articulated regional strategy, and one that will involve more than India and Pakistan. Yet, China, Iran, Russia and others were notable for their absence in Trump’s speech. Both Russia and Iran seem to have adopted the stance that the Taliban is preferable to other violent extremist groups in the region, such as ISIS. Russia has reportedly supplied arms to the Taliban, and Iran has even hosted training camps in its territory, with a Taliban grouping located in Mashad.

China, in addition to acquiring salience owing to its ties to Pakistan, has an economic and security interest in Afghanistan: Members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which seeks to create an independent state in Xinjiang province, have longstanding ties with Afghan armed groups. Failure to account for the influence of these countries, as well as Gulf states, from where it is reported that Al-Qaeda and/or ISIS may be receiving funds, represents a key gap in Trump’s strategy.

Trump’s "clear definition" of victory in Afghanistan reflects U.S. strategy since the onset of the post-2001 conflict: Eliminate terrorist groups, prevent the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and prevent attacks against the U.S. It is no different from what previous administrations have been striving to achieve for the past 16 years. By failing to provide fresh ways forward while committing to open-ended military engagement, however, Trump may be sinking deeper into the quagmire and risks—prolonging what he himself referred to as a “war without victory.”

Emily Winterbotham is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI focusing on conflict, violent extremism and countering violent extremism. Aaditya Dave is a Research Analyst at RUSI focusing on South Asian geopolitical and security issues.

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