On Monday night, President Donald Trump unveiled his new strategy for American involvement in Afghanistan – a country that has been the stage for a seemingly unwinnable war for 16 years.
There was not much in terms of specifics, though Trump did reveal that more US troops would be deployed and the military would have more freedom to fight America’s opponents as it sees fit. He also singled out Pakistan as part of the problem – implying that unless the Pakistanis stopped providing safety for terrorists, they might lose financial aid from the United States.
Perhaps the most significant revelation was Trump’s desire to find a political solution to end the war – one that includes bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.
What’s new in Trump’s plan?
Trump's Afghanistan plan
The new plan for American engagement in Afghanistan that Trump announced is – until he puts more meat on the bones – the same old plan, only with less accountability to Washington.
Yes, Trump more publicly called out Pakistan as being part of the problem. But he failed to lay out any serious detail, making it hard to see exactly now this plan differs from existing US policy and how it will succeed where the old one failed.
On the other hand, the lack of clarity may keep the enemy guessing: no drawdown dates, no troop numbers, only the threat that the enemy cannot win on the battlefield.
How realistic is it?
Trump said: “Someday after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan.”
A political solution to the fight with the Taliban is the only realistic way for US forces to leave Afghanistan and not give a free hand to al Qaeda and ISIS. In acknowledging this, it is clear that Trump is now listening to the advice of his generals.
If you listened carefully, you’ll have noticed that Trump differentiated between his enemies. This is key to leaving the door open for a political deal with the Taliban. He said that his objectives are to “obliterate ISIS,” “crush al Qaeda” and “prevent the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan.”
The Taliban have responded by seemingly leaving the door open for talks. They couched their threat to keep fighting the United States by saying, “If the US keeps following a war strategy, we will keep fighting them.” That careful use of the word “if” may come to be incredibly important.
Will the tough talk on Pakistan work?
Pakistan fears that India would like Afghanistan to become a client state on the Pakistani border.
Pakistan has long supported the Afghan Taliban to prevent this from happening and as a result has a controlling influence in the Afghan government.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the Taliban have complained that Pakistan has prevented their efforts at negotiating peace on their own terms.
Trump’s demand that Pakistan stop offering a haven to criminals, terrorists and other groups is not new.
But when the United States has previously blamed Pakistan for supporting the Taliban – and in particular the Haqqani network – it has not worked out so well: Vital US troop resupply routes that run through Pakistan have been shut down, local tribes have protested and the government has closed the border.
In such situations, the United States has turned to Russia for help. Russia has allowed resupply trains to run across its territory to Afghanistan. But the Russia route is not ideal because it takes much longer – supplies can take more than a month to arrive, as opposed to days from Pakistani ports.
And the political situation today means that Russia is far less likely to allow United States the luxury of a backup path for supplies, should Pakistan close its borders again.
What does success look like?
Success for the United States in Afghanistan would be a negotiated political solution that sees the Taliban as a political entity in the Afghan government.
It is something the Taliban have demanded in the past. The group is seeking ministerial places as well as senior positions in the army.
The Taliban are a national force that has a nationalist agenda, unlike al Qaeda and ISIS, which both have international ambitions.
Recognizing that – as Trump appears to have – is key. Certainly, it wouldn’t guarantee success, but it would help create conditions where success may be possible.
It would certainly require more diplomatic heavy lifting than the United States has managed in the past. The Taliban have a vested interest in seeing ISIS defeated and al Qaeda diminished – both are threats.
Both groups share a broadly common conservative Islamic philosophy and, to a significant degree, their fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan are drawn from the same Pashtun ethnic group, with similarly strong cultural beliefs. This makes it even more important for the Taliban to gain recognition as a political force to represent their community and shut down sympathy for ISIS and al Qaeda.
And that’s the Taliban’s value to the Afghan government and to Trump: to co-opt them into denying territory to terrorists.
What will it take to achieve the plan?
Trust between all parties is central to this plan working.
Pakistan will have to feel that it can trust the United States to act in Pakistan’s interest as well as its own – something that will be complicated because of Trump’s huge appeal in India.
First, the United States cannot afford to make any mistakes – by this we mean civilian casualties that further damage its reputation. Second, it needs to practice quiet diplomacy and try to build a working relationship with the Taliban – which has suffered the most from American intervention.
India has to hold its venom on Pakistan, which it came close to doing in its statement Tuesday responding to Trump’s address.
And the Afghan government needs to win the confidence of its own people through curbing corruption and cronyism.
This is the only way it can build an army that thinks it has a country worth fighting for.
The fate of Afghanistan has always been in the hands of the generals who are invading it.
Trump’s announcement Monday night has done nothing to change this.