Trump has, reluctantly, sent more U.S. troops to Afghanistan as part of his strategy to bring security to a country that has enjoyed little of it in recent decades. At present, there are 14,000 U.S. troops in the country, with plans to send an additional 1,000. That’s nowhere near the 100,000 U.S. troops that were in Afghanistan at the height of the war on terrorism. Until recently, American troops stationed there worked largely in an advisory capacity. Now, they will reportedly move closer to the front lines in an attempt to degrade the Taliban’s ability to function effectively. They face a formidable challenge: The Taliban now controls about one-third of Afghanistan, more territory than at any point since the U.S.-led invasion.
Trump’s change in policy represents a significant departure for a president who, at one point, called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Since then, he has let Defense Secretary James Mattis and planners in the Pentagon have final say on troops levels. He has also pressured Pakistan—a country he has accused of giving “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt”—by suspending security assistance to Islamabad. He has also urged India, Pakistan’s rival, to do more.
But Trump has suggested that the hopes of victory in Afghanistan are dim. Last year, he reportedly told his top advisers he thought the United States was “losing” in Afghanistan. According to The Washington Post, he reportedly quoted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “Never has a country given so much away for so little in return” as the United States in Afghanistan.
Now, there is yet another security threat to contend with in Afghanistan: the Islamic State, which routinely targets Shia and other Afghan minorities. Joint Afghan-U.S. military operations against the group have succeeding in killing ISIS militants, but not eliminating the group. U.S. military estimates of the number of ISIS fighters in Afghanistan have increased, suggesting the group continues to draw recruits despite its battlefield losses in Syria and Iraq.
Ultimately, Afghans themselves will have to bring peace to Afghanistan. The Taliban must either be defeated—an unlikely outcome at this point—or integrated into the political process. It has little incentive to join that process as it continues to show the Afghan people and the world that it can wage war. The degradation of the group, combined with pressure on its main benefactor, Pakistan, might offer one path toward a political process. But history offers ample, sobering lessons for how that will likely turn out.