Updated at 5:55 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, he is expected to offer a new plan for Afghanistan, one that news reports say will include sending 4,000 additional U.S. troops to the country to join the 8,500 personnel already there. It’s not entirely clear Trump is doing this willingly. 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.
“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. 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.”
Trump’s announcement Monday comes after a months-long strategic review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, which culminated last Friday with a meeting between the president and his national-security team at Camp David, Maryland. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who attended the meeting, said Sunday he was “very comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous.” Options presented to Trump 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.
Any strategy for Afghanistan that involves more than the U.S. military 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 Rawalpindi.) Trump is expected Monday to increase pressure on Pakistan to stop providing safe havens to the militants, reportedly threatening it with a withdrawal of non-NATO ally status, and to label it a state sponsor of terrorism.
But 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. 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 undoubtedly has these and other considerations in mind as he addresses his vision for Afghanistan at 9 p.m. ET.
This story will be updated with the president’s remarks.