Joshua Roberts / Reuters U.S. troops watch as President Donald Trump announces his plan for Afghanistan, August 2017.

Trump's Afghan Plan

A Strategy, But Not Much of One

After months of deliberation, on August 20 U.S. President Donald Trump announced a new strategy for Afghanistan. Among other things, it called for an unenumerated troop increase, an open-ended commitment to station American forces in the country, greater leeway for U.S. commanders to make military choices, a warning to Pakistan to end its support to various terrorist organizations operating from its soil, and an exhortation to India to enlarge its presence in Afghanistan. 

The latter two elements of this new strategy have drawn much criticism from regional experts. Michael Kugelman and Peter Henne, for example, have argued that the United States lacks sufficient leverage to induce Pakistan to alter its policies toward the terrorist groups it supports. More to the point, they contend that putting pressure on Pakistan while engaging India is likely to backfire. Doing so would only reinforce Pakistan’s deep-seated fears of being encircled by India. In turn, Pakistan would grow closer to its long-standing ally, the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

It is hardly a revelation that Pakistan has long been playing a deft double game in Afghanistan. While drawing on substantial American military assistance, it has very selectively cracked down on terrorist organizations operating within its borders. Even as it has reined in those entities that directly threaten the interests of the Pakistani state, for example, it has consistently aided the Haqqani terrorist network in Afghanistan. Persistent American calls to end these ties have been all but ignored in Islamabad.

That isn’t particularly surprising: American demands to end support for various terrorist organizations have not been backed with any consequences. At best, the United States has belatedly chosen to withhold coalition support funds, money that it has provided Pakistan for its ostensible support in assisting military actions against the Taliban and other terrorist entities. But this has not led Pakistan to fundamentally alter its behavior. For its part, Pakistan has insisted that it has not only acted in good faith but is actually a hapless victim of terror. 

The Trump administration, to its credit, has already hinted that it may review Pakistan’s status as a “major non-NATO ally.” This designation grants Pakistan significant access to U.S. military technology. Contrary to critics who argue otherwise, this standing grants the United States significant leverage over Pakistan. The question, of course, is whether the Trump administration, unlike its predecessors, is prepared to use it to prompt a change in Pakistan’s behavior. Mere warnings are unlikely to bring about any meaningful alterations in its policies. 

The real problems with Trump's strategy in Afghanistan relate to his stated unwillingness to pursue “nation-building,” the leeway he has given to U.S. commanders, and a lack of diplomatic capacity.

Could such a drastic move drive Pakistan into a closer strategic embrace with China? Such an outcome is unlikely. China, while keen on maintaining its “all-weather” relationship with Pakistan, is unlikely to so readily step into the breach. It has its own misgivings about Pakistan’s continuing dalliance with a host of terrorist organizations. Its anxieties stem from the domestic terrorism that it confronts in the province of Xinjiang. 

The claim that greater Indian engagement in Afghanistan could provoke Pakistan is likewise flawed. India, in an effort to accommodate American concerns about Pakistan, has scrupulously limited its military assistance to Afghanistan. Its aid has been almost exclusively developmental. Since the country is already Afghanistan’s fifth largest donor (and its assistance has been deemed by most external observers, including the Pentagon, to be the most effective) it may not be in a position to significantly boost its current levels of material support. Even if it were, a greater Indian commitment of assistance would do little to undermine Pakistan’s security, because it would be mostly in the form of developmental support.

The real problems with the Trump administration’s strategy relate to his stated unwillingness to pursue “nation-building,” the leeway he has given to U.S. commanders, and a lack of diplomatic capacity.

The Afghan government is rife with internecine squabbles, corruption is endemic, and its efficacy is questionable. It is hard to imagine how the new strategy can succeed without at least a modicum of effort devoted to tackling these endemic problems. For example, the existence of persistent petty corruption may lead Afghans to believe that the Taliban could be a better alternative. Unless these outstanding issues are tackled head-on, the Taliban will be able to exploit them to their own advantage.

Trump has granted greater latitude to American force commanders in Afghanistan to make critical decisions, including decisions on troop levels, and the use of firepower and airstrikes. Given these commanders’ direct knowledge of prevailing conditions, such a shift may well be desirable. However, such a modification of the military strategy needs to come with a concomitant diplomatic effort, given the serious issues of governance that characterize the Afghan regime. 

Yet an accompanying diplomatic effort seems to be sorely lacking. The absence of key diplomatic personnel in critical positions indicates that the administration has given scant attention to this critical component of overall strategy. At the moment, there is no American ambassador in Kabul. One has finally been appointed to New Delhi but still awaits Senate confirmation. Nor, for that matter, has the administration appointed a new assistant secretary for South and Central Asia. Furthermore, the administration has yet to appoint a new special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Department of State. Consequently, one wonders who will be responsible for instituting any of the changes delineated in the new strategy. 

A strategic review of Afghanistan policy after 16 years of U.S. involvement was indeed timely. Sadly, the strategy is laden with shortcomings. 

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