Hot Takes: Trump’s Strategy in Afghanistan

Afghanistan Strategy

Trump’s War: What Does Victory Look Like in Afghanistan?

By Monish Tourangbam

South Asia watchers had been keeping a close eye on the Trump administration’s review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. After oscillating between increasing troop numbers and completing withdrawal, the United States has decided to stay the course in Afghanistan, with a troop surge. While outlining his new Afghanistan strategy, Trump called himself a problem solver, and said, “[…]in the end, we will win.” But did he define what victory looks like for the United States in Afghanistan, and how does he intend to get there? What is the troop surge for? His speech on the new Afghanistan strategy seemed to focus on U.S. counterterrorism objectives in the country. In such a case, is the troop surge required? What happens to the reconciliation talks with the Taliban? Going by Trump’s speech, it has been pushed to the background, sometime after “an effective military effort.” The influence of the military generals in the new strategy is quite visible, while the diminutive role of the State Department is too conspicuous to be missed, despite Trump calling the strategy an “integration of all instruments of American power.”

Unlike Obama’s “surge and exit” strategy, Trump does not want to make troop numbers public and prefers a strategy based not on timelines, but on ground conditions. But, it is unclear how exactly an open-ended campaign would win the game of patience in Afghanistan. The Taliban, on home ground, is better situated to wait out U.S. forces.  The new strategy has called out Pakistan for providing “safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.” But, operationalizing this pressure remains a challenge. How is this administration going to change Islamabad or rather Rawalpindi’s calculations of its Afghan gambit? What is the alternative to Pakistan’s geostrategic relevance to American logistics and transport requirements? What is the answer to Pakistan’s ability to destabilize Afghanistan when its interests are perceived to be threatened?

While Trump praised India’s support for stability in Afghanistan, the transactional nature of his presidency was also evident. Instead of focussing on what the United States and India can do together in Afghanistan, the focus was on what Washington expects India to do in Afghanistan, in return for its trade turnovers with the United States. Moreover, India’s role seems to be have been circumscribed to the domain of development and economic assistance. The strategy, or at least the speech, also seems to be oblivious to how players like China, Iran, and Russia are involved in Afghanistan, and what this means for future U.S. strategy in the region.

In June, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis had conceded that “we are not winning in Afghanistan right now” and pledged that “we will correct this as soon as possible.” Has the new strategy spelled out how that will be done, or rather what that win looks like? Or is it that the Trump team, as David Ignatius observed, is redefining what victory means in Afghanistan by trying not to lose and calling it a win?

There are more questions than answers.

Trump’s Plan for Afghanistan: Win or Loss for Kabul?

By Ahmad Shah Angar

The United States’ new Afghanistan strategy has both good news and bad news for Kabul.

First, the good news. The new strategy does not include rigid timelines for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and contains clear commitment regarding training and equipping Afghan forces. The current Afghan government is weak and faces many internal political challenges, while day by day the Taliban and the Islamic State are becoming stronger. Also, a recent clash between former warlords belonging to Jamaat-e-Islami and Hezb-e-Islami raised concerns that the civil war of the 1990s may not be just a thing of the past. However, the new commitment by the United States has generated optimism among Afghans.

Additionally, for the first time, the United States clearly and forcefully called on Pakistan to stop interference in Afghanistan and cease support for the insurgency in the country, something Kabul has been demanding for a long time. Though it remains to be seen if U.S. coercion finally causes Pakistan to act, the gesture was welcomed in Afghanistan.

However, the new strategy is bad news for the Afghan peace process, which hardly found mention in President Trump’s speech. The experience of the last 16 years shows that solely military efforts will not end the conflict in Afghanistan. The international community led by the United States should focus on achieving peace through negotiations.

Another problematic aspect of the new strategy is that it seems to be giving more delegation and power to U.S. troops to conduct operations against insurgents. However, experience has shown that arbitrary U.S. raids have had more negative consequences than positive in the past, in terms of generating support for U.S. strategy among the populace—consider the controversial night raids, for example. Such tactics may stoke anti-American sentiment and increase support for the Taliban.

Lastly, the new strategy does not mention China or Russia, both important regional players with a stake in Afghanistan. U.S. strategy to access Central Asia’s hydrocarbon resources and its presence in Afghanistan are seen by Russia and China as antithetical to their interests in the region. This omission of their role further complicates the situation. Additionally, the new strategy asks India to step up its involvement in Afghanistan, which will not be seen favorably by China. These factors may embolden the triangular alliance of Pakistan, China, and Russia in a destabilizing way for the region.

Whether the new U.S. strategy will be a win or loss for Kabul remains to be seen. Though, one thing, unfortunately, is clear—war in Afghanistan will go on.

Trump’s New Demands: Islamabad’s Perspective

By Umair Jamal

In his speech about his new Afghanistan strategy, U.S. President Donald J. Trump called Pakistan out on “safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.”

While Pakistan continues to state that it has taken action against all militant groups without making any distinctions, policymakers in Washington argue that Islamabad still supports different factions of insurgent groups in Afghanistan that have undermined U.S. reconciliation and counterterrorism efforts in the country.

Trump’s declaration to Pakistan is clear: either give up support for militant proxies or face action.  But Washington’s new threats and demands have only reinforced Pakistan’s long-held view that the United States is not a reliable partner.

Policymakers in Pakistan, particularly the military establishment, are not going to adhere to Trump’s counterterrorism demands, irrespective of the nature of punishments that Washington might impose. This is because there is a deep divergence of interests between the United States and Pakistan when it comes to Afghanistan. The United States continues to ignore Pakistan’s strategic security concerns vis-a-vis Afghanistan, which also include growing Indian presence and influence in Kabul. But Trump has offered India a greater presence in Afghanistan and has also snubbed Pakistan’s efforts in the Afghan peace process. These actions will only push Pakistan to double down on its policy of keeping links with the Afghan Taliban and other insurgent groups.

It is important to note that Pakistan does not keep links with insurgent groups because it is an ideological state; rather, the state does it because it considers non-state actors an important part of its regional security assessment to counteract India’s presence. If the Trump administration wants to change Pakistan’s policy behavior, then it should try addressing Islamabad’s security concerns in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Chest thumping or acting tough is not going to bring any results.

In the short term, the challenge for Islamabad will be convincing Trump’s South Asia team that the country has taken credible action against the Haqqani network. If Trump’s speech is any indication, the United States would likely adopt a more aggressive counterterrorism approach inside and outside of Afghanistan that could potentially result in more U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and perhaps, ground operations as well.


Image: Mark Wilson via Getty Images (cropped)

Posted in , Afghanistan, India, Militancy, Negotiations, Pakistan, Peace, Policy, Security, United States, US

Monish Tourangbam

Monish Tourangbam is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka, India and was an SAV Visiting Fellow in July 2017. He is the Coordinator of the North East Studies Centre of the Academy and is the Executive Editor of The North East Diary--a newsletter on the affairs of India's northeast. He is Features Editor (Foreign Policy) for the Science, Technology, and Security Forum ( In addition to teaching, he conducts policy and academic research on strategic and international security issues. His research interests include U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy, U.S. domestic politics, the United States in the emerging geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region, U.S. policy towards South Asia, strategy and negotiations in international relations and India’s foreign policy orientation. Formerly, he was Associate Fellow at the Centre for International Relations, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He was also visiting faculty at the Department of Political Science, University of Cincinnati, Ohio. He has delivered a number of lectures in India and abroad, including at the University of Louisville, the University of Dayton, the Wright State University, and the Open University of Sri Lanka. He has been involved in a number of projects, including one for Net Assessment funded by the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS). He has participated in a number of conferences including the Asia Foundation’s 2016 South Asia workshop on Asian Views of America’s Role in Asia. He has a number of publications to his credit, including chapters in books, articles in journals such as India Quarterly, the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal and commentaries/opinion pieces in newspapers such as The Tribune, The Pioneer, The New Indian Express and strategic affairs platforms such as Foreign Policy (South Asia Channel), South Asia Democratic Forum (Germany), The Asia & The Pacific Policy Society at the Australian National University and The Diplomat. He holds an M.Phil and a Ph.D. from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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Ahmad Shah Angar

Ahmad Shah Angar is a political analyst, with 12 years experience in media, communications, and legal affairs in Afghanistan. He was a journalist with the BBC World Service in Afghanistan and has also worked as an interpreter and communications officer in many international organizations like the United Nations Development Program as well as with U.S. and ISAF forces in Afghanistan. Currently, he is an MA student in Conflict Analysis and Peace building at Jamia Milia Islamia in New Delhi, India.

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Umair Jamal

Umair Jamal teaches History and South Asian security at the Forman Christian College University. He is a correspondent for The Diplomat magazine, based in Lahore, Pakistan. His research focuses primarily on the analysis of South Asian security and politics. His work has been featured in a number of renowned media outlets including Foreign Policy, Al-Jazeera, The National Interest, The Huffington Post, The Diplomat, Asia Times, The News on Sunday, Pakistan Today and others. He was an SAV Visiting Fellow, July 2018. He can be reached at [email protected]

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6 thoughts on “Hot Takes: Trump’s Strategy in Afghanistan

  1. Hi there!
    The article is quite convincing and I really appreciate the hard work you guys have done, but what I have in mind is just that one question which is coming again and again that, how could Pakistan be still acting against the US policies when more than half of its funds are distributed by the US administrator office?
    I mean like if the US really wants to make that peace talks successful and it knows that Pakistan is the one who is covering and supporting the warlords, then how could they still provide funds for them?

  2. But still that one question, what will that victory look like for the US??
    Because, as far as I think, the victory for us over this situation is way different and is in direct conflict of that with US, so what victory they are planing to have in there??
    Any guesses ??

  3. Some of the statements here are astonishing, “Pakistan keeps links with insurgent groups as part of its regional security interest”… –> tells us everything that is wrong with pakistan today

    Russia and china aside, even on its own pakistan has tremendous will to resist coercion as the “alt-history victim” narrative of the establishment has totally blinded them to the havoc jihadi terrorists have wreaked on the state. combo of jihadis & a country constantly at bankruptcy’s doors ain’t good.

    in the short term at least the US has two levers to make pakistan feel real pain. delaying (not even vetoing outright) multilateral agency loans and if needed putting ‘roadblocks’ to hit pakistan’s already dwindling exports. general economic malaise and a rupee crashing double digit % are not insignificant possibilities if the US even takes the mildest counteractions/shows serious intent.

    pakistan’s security ‘concerns’ esp vis a vis India and the imaginary bogeyman of ‘existential’ threat are nonsensical and have no cure. it is akin to a paranoid schizophrenic hypochondriac who cannot and will not allow to be reasoned with. pakistan wants to be an international migraine.. god help us

  4. Many thanks, Monish, Ahmad and Umair.
    My take is that Trump has been convinced that “bugging out” would have worse consequences than staying.
    Forget about ‘victory.’ He chose not to lose.

  5. The security situation in Afghanistan is complex, majority of the areas are under the control of Taliban, it is because still today Taliban are popular and acknowledged political party among the Afghan people. The U.S. has to consider it while making policy, giving India handful influence in Afghanistan will add to security challenges of Pakistan and will further destabilize the region.

  6. Solution to Afghanistan problem will of course come through a negotiated solution with the involvement of China and Pakistan, and possibly Russia and Iran, who are its next door neighbours and have a natural interest in peace in the region. Luckily, the involvement of China in Afghanistan is increasing. With technical know-how and foreign exchange reserves of over three trillion dollars, China has ample funds looking for investment opportnity abroad which Afghanistan can offer by way of its massive mineral deposits, the exploitation of which for mutual benefit can help revive Afghan economy. China can also easily replace both America and India which, between them, give Afhan some economic aid and also pay salaries of its army, amounting to a few billion dollars in total annually. And with economic activities revived in Afghanistan, many Afghans may be diverted to industry instead of swelling the ranks of Taliban which is about the only opportunity available to them to earn a living at present.

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