7 takeaways from Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy
President Donald Trump announced what he called a “dramatic” shift in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia on Monday night, one focused less on nation building and writing a “blank check” to the Afghan government and more on increased pressure on Pakistan and its neighbors to fight terror in the region, he said.
The 16-year war has spanned three presidents. Here are seven takeaways from foreign policy experts about Trump’s remarks and how he could change the country’s efforts in the region.
This is the “most hawkish view of Pakistan that we’ve seen in some time,” said Seth Jones, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation specializing in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. Trump’s language “really reflects how tired and angry a number of senior American intelligence, military and diplomatic officials are this far into the 16-year war in Afghanistan — and that the Taliban continues to have a safe haven in Pakistan soil,” Jones added.
Serious Trump threat on Pakistan: "That will change immediately. No partnership can survive the housing of militants that attack the US…"
— Nick Schifrin (@nickschifrin) August 22, 2017
Trump’s language indicated a subtle difference between his approach to the Taliban and his approach to al-Qaeda and ISIS. Trump used the words “obliterating” and “defeating” when he spoke about al-Qaeda and ISIS, but not when referring to the Taliban, Jones said. This suggests Trump recognizes that “the Taliban will probably have to continue in some form possibly in rural areas as a militant group [or] maybe in a political forum.”
Trump said we’re not in the business of nation building, but he shouldn’t discount it, either, said Andrew Wilder of the United States Institute of Peace. “Having a democracy there is an important, fundamental to exit strategy from Afghanistan,” Wilder told PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff. “Just killing bad guys — we’ve done a lot of that over 16 years,” Wilder said, but more important is ensuring the country’s 2019 presidential election is legitimate. Otherwise, we’ll see “a descent into anarchy with no legitimate government,” he said.
Setting deadlines for troop withdrawal — as President Barack Obama had done — are counterproductive, Trump said, and “I think he’s right,” said James Dobbin, a former ambassador to the European Union and special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “It’s counterproductive to set deadlines that aren’t condition-based, which gives the adversary a timetable that allowed them to wait it out.”
Judy Woodruff reviews the president’s remarks with John Yang, Nick Schifrin and Andrew Wilder of the United States Institute of Peace.
A serious settlement in the region will require other political groundwork, says Steve Biddle, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and an adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Specifically: having Congress work out a deal involving concessions to the Taliban. “If we’re not willing to lay the political groundwork for a real deal, then this is just keeping the war on life support to no identifiable purpose,” Biddle added. “Modest U.S. reinforcement can help prevent outright defeat of the Afghan government but it cannot win the war.”
Trump highlighted partners in the region, and a diplomatic push will be key to his success. The U.S. hasn’t had a regional strategy for the last two years, journalist Ahmed Rashid told NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff. “Now, given everything else that’s happening in the world, the Middle East, North Korea and others, I fear that President Trump is not going to put together a really high-powered team which is going to effectively deal with some of these neighboring countries and bring them together in some kind of alliance.”
This was a speech more about strategy than tactical details. Jones noted Trump avoided touching on troop numbers and other debates about the long war, such as the role of military advisers. “It’s hard to gauge how successful a strategy can be without knowing more of the details,” Jones said — and for that reason, we’ll have to take a “wait-and-see” approach about how this plays out on the ground, he added.
NewsHour’s Joshua Barajas reported for this story.