News Analysis

Trump's Afghan strategy wins praise but won't win the war against the Taleban

US President Donald J. Trump (left) greets military leaders before his speech on Afghanistan at the Fort Myer military base in Arlington, Virginia, USA on Aug 21, 2017.
US President Donald J. Trump (left) greets military leaders before his speech on Afghanistan at the Fort Myer military base in Arlington, Virginia, USA on Aug 21, 2017.PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON - The new US strategy for Afghanistan announced by President Donald Trump late on Monday sets no time limits on its involvement, a change from past roadmaps for US military involvement.

The strategy seeks to take the fight back against the resurgent Taleban; pressures Pakistan to reduce its support for the Islamic militants and other terrorist groups; and asks India to step up its financial commitments to Afghanistan.

The strategy for what is now America's longest war won praise from Republicans. Senator John McCain in a statement called it "long overdue".

Senator Marco Rubio tweeted that basing the strategy on ground conditions rather than arbitrary numbers and timelines was the right approach.

Analysts noted that it avoided the mistake former President Barack Obama made when he signalled a time frame for the US's withdrawal, emboldening the Taleban which the US drove out of power in 2001 in response to its sheltering of Osama bin Laden, who orchestrated the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington.

Mr Trump's strategy also won praise for naming Pakistan as a safe haven for the Taleban. "The Americans have made clear they will not be fooled, they know what is happening on the ground," an Asian security analyst told The Straits Times.

Analysts noted the inherent limits of military options, stressing that real stability depends on a wider regional diplomatic effort over a country which has historically been a graveyard for superpowers, and is a potential vortex drawing in other powers like China and Iran.

 

Nisha Biswal, a former US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, now with the consultancy Albright-Stonebridge Group, wrote in an email: "While the President did reference Pakistan and India, he failed to address at all the important influence wielded by China, Russia, Turkey and Iran. In addition, the Central Asian States, a number of whom border Afghanistan, and others like Kazakhstan… were also ignored."

 

"However, for Afghanistan to be successful, stable and economically viable, there must be a robust regional diplomatic strategy," she wrote.

At worst, deploying around 4,000 additional troops and advisers and training the Afghan government's regular forces and air force, will maintain the status quo with the Taleban.

At best it will push back the Taleban to some degree. The militants now control roughly 40 per cent of the country.

"The Taleban cannot seize power again in Kabul or in provincial capitals with the US staying in Afghanistan," said the Asian analyst, who asked not to be named.

"The US is the main factor ensuring the Afghan government's survival. General Nicholson wants additional troops on the ground to break the stalemate," he said. General John Nicholson is commander of US troops in Afghanistan.

"Continued US presence at current or near current levels, while not enough to stabilise Afghanistan, can at least keep it from collapsing entirely," Ms Biswal wrote.

"The President's announcement will provide some reassurances to the region which feared a US vacuum."

The US has also - though not for the first time - said an eventual negotiated solution would possibly include elements of the Taleban, but that would be for the Afghan government to decide.

But reconciling inherent contradictions remain a huge challenge. President Trump put Pakistan on notice over safe havens for the Taleban and other terrorist groups, but did not say what the consequences would be if the government did not acquiesce.

Getting Pakistan to reduce its support for the Taleban requires the Pakistani military leadership to shed its deep-seated strategic fear, unfounded or not, of Indian encirclement via Afghanistan.

Enhancing the capacity of Afghanistan's regular forces presents the possibility of striking the Taleban inside Pakistan, across a border that is in many places disputed; this will feed Pakistani insecurities, analysts say.

India could raise developmental aid to Afghanistan but that alone is unlikely to dramatically alter the strategic goals of the Taleban and will also feed Pakistan's fears. Pakistan, in response, can turn more to China, with which it building an increasingly close relationship.

"In his speech on Afghanistan, Trump mentions India, but not China. Beijing is far more critical to Afghanistan's stability than New Delhi," Tweeted Arif Rafiq, Fellow at the Washington-based Center for Global Policy. "China, not India, shares a physical border (with) Afghanistan."

Michael Kugelman, Senior Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, wrote in an email: "Sending several thousand more troops to Afghanistan won't win the war. But it's wrong to reflexively dismiss the utility of a modest troop increase."

"More US troops can help enhance a training mission in Afghanistan that has actually made very real progress. It can focus on plugging the capacity gaps that remain, like intelligence collection and air support."

But he added: "So long as Pakistan continues to provide sanctuary to the Taleban leadership, the insurgency will endure. Figuring out the Pakistan problem goes hand in hand with figuring out the overall Afghanistan problem."