Five things to watch for in Trump’s new Afghanistan policy

Will Mattis now set the agenda?
Will Mattis now set the agenda?
Image: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
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After 16 years of stuttering war in Afghanistan, the Taliban has returned to its strongest level since 2001. This evening (Aug. 21), US president Donald Trump is announcing a new US approach to stabilizing the region.

His plan comes just days after he fired his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, a vehement voice against sending more troops to Afghanistan, and the architect of Trump’s “America First” policy of limiting foreign engagement to situations where the US can benefit directly. That case is hard to make for Afghanistan: As an exporter of terrorism it’s been overshadowed by the Middle East, and its mineral riches aren’t much closer to being tapped than they were 16 years ago.

Still, Afghanistan is is one of the few issues on which the Trump administration has a deep bench of advisors with on-the-ground experience. They include Lisa Curtis, a former Heritage Foundation director, CIA analyst, and US diplomat in South Asia, and colonel Joel Rayburn, who served in the Middle East under David Petraeus and has written extensively about the collapse of the Iraqi state under the US invasion. National security advisor H.R. McMaster, who served in Afghanistan, has also been pushing Trump to get the US more involved.

Judging from previous policy announcements, Trump is unlikely to go into much detail in this evening’s address. Here’s how experts in the region say his plans may shape up.

Troop numbers

This will be the figure that makes all the headlines, if Trump states a specific number, which isn’t certain. At the moment there are around 8,500 US soldiers and 12,000 foreign troops and contractors in Afghanistan, and all expectations are that the number will go up (paywall). That’s a huge drop from the over 130,000 that were there in 2010, though. Tonight’s announcement may be of just the 3,900 extra troops that Trump had already authorized defense secretary James Mattis to dispatch.

At present, the US is using all its 8,500 troops “just to operate a half-dozen bases…and provide central training and mentoring,” writes Michael O’Hanlon, director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institute. It needs a hefty amount more to be able to advise and mentor Afghan troops. America’s failure to do that in 2015 is largely to blame for Kabul’s losing most of Helmand province and the city of Kunduz to the Taliban, O’Hanlon says.

The overall goal

Troop numbers, however, aren’t really going to make the biggest difference, says Jonah Blank, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. He points out that even with more than 100,000 combined allied forces, “There hasn’t been a point where Afghanistan was stabilized—so it’s hard to see how whether it’s two or three or four or even twelve thousand troops will make all that much of a difference,” he says.

Instead, the US needs to first work out a new plan, something the Obama and Bush administrations failed to do. “Coming up with something truly game-changing is a tall order,” Blank says. He argues for lowering expectations; rather than try to totally defeat of the Taliban and create a US-allied Afghan government, be willing to accept a negotiated settlement with the Taliban that still keeps many of the gains made by president Ashraf Ghani’s government.

Part of the problem may be that the US’s approach has changed with each administration. “There’s no experience in history that suggests that in anything less than a decade can you meaningfully improve the quality of governance, even in places with a more sophisticated baseline than Afghanistan,” says Bruce Jones (pdf, p. 5), director of the Brookings Foreign Policy program.

How to deal with Pakistan

The key to stabilizing Afghanistan is Pakistan, many of Trump’s top advisors say. Pakistan has long been thought to harbor Taliban leaders just across its border with Afghanistan, and the Pakistan military is said to provide operational support to insurgent groups in neighboring countries. This summer Islamabad even allowed Hafiz Saeed, whom the UN has designated as a terrorist and has a $10 million US bounty on his head, to register an official political party.

The Obama administration tried to coax Pakistan’s government to cut back on its support by engaging Pakistan’s top leaders in the fight against the Taliban and offering billions in aid. But Trump’s advisers are pushing for a relationship that is less carrot and more stick, says one non-staff advisor who has more than a decade of experience in the region.

A paper Curtis published before she joined the administration gives a possible preview. “The U.S. must stop chasing the mirage of securing change in Pakistan’s strategic direction by giving it additional aid or military equipment,” she wrote in February. Among other things, she recommends dangling the threat that the US might name Pakistan a “state sponsor of terrorism,” which would restrict US assistance and arms sales to the country, and making it clear that the US doesn’t consider Pakistan an ally unless it makes radical changes.

Trump made a gushing post-election phone call to former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif, but in recent weeks officials from the State Department responsible for the Pakistan relationship have left (paywall) and haven’t been replaced. That’s left it unclear whether Trump prefers the stick or the carrot.

Rebuilding the military and police force

The US has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on training Afghanistan’s military and police over the past decade and a half. The George W. Bush administration predicted that this would help the central government extend its control over the country.

But the rapid reduction in US and other foreign troops that started in 2011 year depleted the Afghanistan army more than anticipated, in part because it was so dependent on not just foreign aid but operational help. When US troops left en masse, they took with them key components the army needed, like balloons used to track the Taliban and the sourcing pipeline for helicopter parts.

In addition to committing a few thousand more troops, the Trump administration may say that it will offer more operational support on the ground, in the form of non-military aid, if corruption in the military is cleaned up.

A quid pro quo on Afghan minerals

Trump has reportedly (paywall) been eyeing Afghanistan’s enormous mineral wealth as a way of paying for more US military commitment. Its potential value has been put as high as $1 trillion, and Afghan officials have been openly offering mineral rights to Washington. But regional experts and investors see the supplies as utterly inaccessible in the current unstable climate. What’s more, China has been the only country actively investing in Afghan minerals, says Blank. The US taking those resources is sure to be a “crossroads” with Beijing, he says. That could cause problems, given China’s growing alliance with Pakistan.