Trump's Plan for Afghanistan: No Timeline for Exit

Despite prime-time billing for the president’s announcement, Americans heard a familiar argument about extending the war.

President Trump speaks into a mic
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Updated at 10:13 p.m. ET

What a difference four years and a presidential election victory make. In 2013, Donald Trump offered this prescription for what the U.S. should do in Afghanistan:

On Monday night, Trump offered a new plan for Afghanistan, combing a military strategy with one that puts Pakistan on notice for supporting militants, and saying while the U.S. wanted the Afghan government to succeed, U.S. support was not a “blank check.” Trump also moved decisively away from the Bush-era policy of the U.S. as a force to spread democracy overseas.

“We are not nation-building again,” he said. “We are killing terrorists.”

Rex Tillerson, his secretary of state, went further. In a statement released after Trump’s remarks, he said the U.S. was making clear the Taliban will not win on the battlefield.

“The Taliban has a path to peace and political legitimacy through a negotiated political settlement to end the war,” Tillerson said in the statement. “We stand ready to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban without preconditions.”

Although Trump declined to say how many U.S. troops would go to Afghanistan, news reports Monday said the U.S. would send 4,000 additional U.S. troops to the country to join the 8,500 personnel already there. Trump acknowledged Monday his decision came after much deliberation.

“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts, but all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office,” he said.

Trump said he studied Afghanistan in great detail, and that after Friday’s meeting with his national-security team at Camp David, Maryland, he arrived at three conclusions about U.S. interests in Afghanistan: “First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made; second, the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable … third, and finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense.”

The remarks are a departure from those he made less than two month ago. As I noted last week, he reportedly told his top advisers he thinks the U.S. is “losing” the war in Afghanistan, and that he wanted “to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years, how it’s going, and what we should do in terms of additional ideas.” (The U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan for 16 years.) Those are all valid questions about the U.S. strategy in the country where the conflict between the Afghan government and the Taliban is at a stalemate, where corruption continues to hamstring governance, and where regional and ethnic loyalties often trump loyalties to the central government.

Trump said the U.S. policy was to make Afghan security forces stronger. “We want them to succeed,” he said.

“America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress,” the president added. “However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check. The American people expect to see real reforms and real results.”

“We seem to be at risk of kicking the can around the circle,” Christopher Kolenda, who served as the senior adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Department of Defense from 2009 to 2014, told me in an email Monday before Trump’s remarks. He previously told me in an interview that the Afghan government’s inability to retake territory that’s contested or under Taliban control is “unlikely to change appreciably as long as both sides have international support.”

Laurel Miller, who until recently served as the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), told me in an email that there’s unlikely to be much that’s new in Trump’s strategy.

“A U.S. troops increase has been tried before ; aid conditionality and other forms of pressure have been applies to Pakistan to try to get more cooperation in depriving Afghan insurgents of sanctuary; and various inducements have long been used to try to get the Afghan government to bring down corruption and address other popular grievances.

“Reformulations of these same measures are not likely to produce greatly improved results. If the president were to launch as serious initiative to achieve a negotiated settlement of the conflict, prioritize on a par with the military efforts, that would be something new and potentially promising.”

The president considered alternatives: Options presented to Trump at Camp David included a total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, a move many experts say would result in chaos with Afghanistan’s neighbors stepping in to fill the security vacuum; the use of private contractors, a strategy supported by Erik Prince, the former Blackwater CEO, and Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist; as well as the continued presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in a training-and-advising capacity while working with Pakistan to bring about a longer-lasting security and political solution.

Trump’s strategy will likely need the kind of position that Trump reportedly eliminated in June at the U.S. State Department, while he was considering strategy for Afghanistan. The SRAP position, which was established during the Obama administration to coordinate policy, is expected to be folded into the department’s South and Central Asian Affairs Bureau (though there’s confusion over the fate of the office). Miller, who served as SRAP until June, said “the end game in Afghanistan—if it is to have a reasonable chance of producing durable stability—will have to involve negotiations of a political settlement.”

She said a battlefield victory wasn’t plausible in the foreseeable future—especially given the number of troops being discussed under Trump’s plan. “A political end game will also have attack the support of key regional players, including Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and China,” she said. “The U.S. will be in a better position to advance its counterterrorism interests in the region over the long term if it seriously pursues a political settlement of Afghanistan’s internal conflict.”

James Cunningham, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told me in an interview last week that the U.S. must give Afghan security forces the support they needed to effectively provide security for the Afghan people, and then “move onto a strategy that involves heavy political and diplomatic focus on trying to find a way to bring the conflict ultimately to an end.”

Any road to a political settlement in Afghanistan—whatever that looks like—would have to go through Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. The country has long been accused of supporting the Taliban and of providing a safe haven and safe passage for militants across the porous border between the two countries. (Pakistan was also where Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader, had taken refuge before he was killed by Navy SEALs in Abbotabad.*) Trump increased pressure on Pakistan to stop providing safe havens to the militants; news reports said the U.S. could threaten Islamabad with a withdrawal of non-NATO ally status, and to label it a state sponsor of terrorism. He noted in his remarks Monday that 20 U.S. designated foreign terrorist organizations were active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, accusing Pakistan of giving “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror.”

“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” Trump said, offering perhaps the strongest criticism by a U.S. president of Pakistan’s policy, but echoing a widely held view among U.S. national-security experts. “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists.”

He also called on India, Pakistan’s neighbor and rival, to do more in Afghanistan, a move that is likely to be welcomed in New Delhi that has spent billion of dollars in development and aid in Afghanistan, but also likely to rub salt in Islamabad’s wounds.

Pakistan’s view of the situation in Afghanistan is markedly different from that of the U.S. Any political solution in Afghanistan that does not involve power-sharing with Pakistan’s allies in the Taliban will not be palatable to Pakistan’s powerful military, which fears being sandwiched between India and Afghanistan, two allies that have poor relations with it. Pakistan also has poor relations with Iran, another neighbor. Any expectation that Pakistan stops providing safe havens to the militants is likely to be met only if there is a concomitant agreement on power-sharing with the Taliban.

“We have tried to persuade Pakistan over the last several years ... that their interests are better served by a real effort to deal with all the aspects of Islamic militancy and terrorism in that area,” Cunningham told me. “They have changed their rhetoric at various times over the years, but haven’t substantially changed their approach … and that needs to be  done somehow.”

Ultimately, experts agree, there is likely no military solution in Afghanistan—something Trump echoed on Monday. The conflict’s end is not likely to be marked by the Taliban signing a surrender document. And prospects of a political solution will remain slim as along as the Afghan central government remains weak.

“There’s some basic things that one has to decide about Afghanistan: Is there actually a potential for serious threat and destabilization if Afghanistan is abandoned? That question needs to be debated and not just thrown aside with a soundbite answer,” Ronald Neumann, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 and supports an extended U.S. presence, told me last week.

He added: “You should not walk away from the question of threat because that needs an answer: Then you can decide whether we can accept the threat—or not. … Then the second question is if you think it’s a threat, is a longer-term presence in Afghanistan sustainable? I would say it is. There’s no enormous political pressure on the president. Even if a lot of people say it’s not working … they don’t vote on that basis. So the president has got a lot of flexibility to go pretty much any way he wants.”

Trump, in his remarks, called the U.S. approach “principled realism.”

“We will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our own image—those days are now over,” he said. “Instead, we will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interests. We are not asking others to change their way of life, but to pursue common goals that allow our children to live better lives.”

* This article originally misstated the location of Osama Bin Laden's death. He was killed in Abbotabad, not in Rawalpindi. We regret the error.