How Trump Should Manage Afghanistan

A Realistic Set of Goals for the New Administration

Afghan security forces take position during a gun battle between Taliban and Afghan security forces in Laghman province, Afghanistan, March 2017. Parwiz Parwiz / REUTERS

During his February 28, 2017, address to a joint session of Congress, U.S. President Donald Trump vowed to “demolish and destroy” terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Although most U.S. media coverage has focused on U.S. operations in Syria and Iraq, Afghanistan remains an important frontline state in the struggle against terrorism. At present, there are more U.S. military forces deployed there than to any other active combat zone, and a panoply of Islamist extremist groups—from the Taliban to al Qaeda and ISIS—remain in the country and in neighboring states such as Pakistan.

This reality makes it important for the Trump administration to avoid some past U.S. missteps, such as, especially, publicizing a fixed set of deadlines to withdraw U.S. forces. Instead, the United States should retain a small military force in the country at or slightly above the current level of 8,400 U.S. soldiers, along with its current diplomatic, intelligence, and development footprint. 

Washington’s goals should be limited: aggressively pursue terrorists that threaten the United States, prevent Taliban forces from overthrowing the Afghan government, and encourage a more sustainable and effective Afghan government. A small but durable U.S. military presence would have an additional benefit: it would likely dampen security competition between nuclear-armed regional powers, which would almost certainly intensify with a U.S. departure.

In some ways, Trump inherits a more challenging situation in Afghanistan than his predecessor did. In 2016, the Taliban slightly increased its control of territory in rural areas of Afghanistan’s east and north, though the Taliban does not control any cities. The Taliban’s leadership still enjoys a sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan, where it oversees the insurgency. Several other countries, including Iran and Russia, have also stepped up communication with, and provided limited material support to, the Taliban.

In addition, Afghanistan’s national unity government remains weak and hamstrung by corruption, though the non-governmental organization Transparency International recently praised Afghanistan’s national

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