Every disclosure about the Donald Trump administration’s forthcoming Afghanistan strategy triggers a chorus like a Passover seder: Why is this strategy different from all other strategies?
The goal is the same. Like former United States president Barack Obama’s initial Afghanistan surge, the objective for Trump’s strategy is to force the Taliban into peace talks and to push for a negotiated settlement to the conflict on terms favourable to the elected government.
The means are essentially the same. Like Obama in setting his second-term policy, United States President Donald Trump has signalled he does not want to send a large force to take back the country, province by province. The bright line is the same. Like most American politicians since former president George W. Bush, Trump does not want to get sucked into a money pit of even more nation-building.
But there are important differences. Last week, a senior US administration official working on the strategy explained some of them and made the case that this time the Afghanistan strategy has a chance for success where others failed.
One stark difference is that, according to this official, Trump has no intention of “telegraphing” an American troop withdrawal. Obama took the opposite approach on the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, making it known to friend and foe that 2010 was the end of US combat operations in Iraq and that all US troops were supposed to be out of Afghanistan by 2016.
For years, the Taliban concluded they could wait out the Americans, a perception bolstered by Obama’s insistence on setting withdrawal dates. Trump’s advisers also say Obama’s approach shaped the calculations of other regional actors who would fill in the void left by a premature US exist, like Pakistan, Russia and Iran. This is one reason the Afghanistan strategy is now officially known inside the National Security Council as the South Asia strategy. It will take a regional approach to the thorny problems of America’s longest war. The senior administration official told me this means there will be strong efforts to blunt the influence of both Russia and Iran. That’s important because US generals have recently accused the Russians of arming the Taliban. The Iranians, who, in the beginning of the war, were courted by the Bush administration as a partner to stabilise Afghanistan, are now perceived to be spoilers.
The regional approach also extends to Pakistan. Like Obama, the Trump administration is looking to target the Haqqani network of former military and intelligence officers who provide support from Pakistan to the Taliban in Afghanistan. The hope, according to the senior administration official, is to “convince Pakistan that their security interests are better served by cooperating rather than working against the US in Afghanistan”.
Finally, the regional approach will build on Obama-era efforts to work more closely with India, and encourage the Indians to continue providing financial aid to Kabul to build more infrastructure.
The new approach would also change how the war in Afghanistan is managed. Military commanders under Obama complained that the White House at times micromanaged the war. US officers training Afghan soldiers were limited in how much they could support the units they trained when going into battle. Because there were strict caps, known as “force management levels”, placed on US forces in Afghanistan. The US often had to hire outside contractors to perform routine maintenance on equipment, instead of keeping whole units and battalions intact.
Week before last, Trump finally agreed to lift the “force management levels” for Afghanistan and empower US Secretary of Defence James Mattis to take make decisions on the numbers of US troops sent there. That new authority will also empower US commanders on the ground to engage more in the fight with the local forces that US officers are training. Finally, the Pentagon will be sending in more close air support and artillery to assist the Afghan military.
Since this April, Trump had resisted giving the Pentagon this authority, but ultimately he relented. The senior administration official told me the president’s decision was a response to the spiralling situation on the ground. The Kabul bombing and a more recent attack on US soldiers from Taliban operatives who infiltrated the Afghan army forced Trump to make an uncomfortable choice. On the one hand, the president has been wary of a large conventional surge in Afghanistan, fearing, according to some administration officials, that this could become his Vietnam War. On the other hand, he does not want to be the president who lost Afghanistan. Had he not empowered the Pentagon to lift the “force management levels”, his top advisers argued the government of Afghan President Ashraf Gani could fall.
All of that said, Trump’s decision to lift the cap on US forces for Afghanistan is not a blank cheque. The senior administration official told me it was highly unlikely the total US troop levels for the country would exceed the “low five figures”. What’s more, other US officials tell me that Trump has left open the option of changing course if he doesn’t see real progress on the ground.
That flexibility will work for and against US interests. On the one hand, Trump will resist getting US forces into another quagmire. At the same time, a key pillar of the current strategy is to persuade all players in Afghanistan that the US is committed to the government in Kabul for the long term.
This tension is one of the reasons Trump has yet to approve a strategy for Afghanistan and the region, despite the fact that its broad outlines have been ready for his approval for more than two months. US officials say that he is ready to commit to the plan his top advisers have developed. The biggest hurdle was empowering Mattis to set the troop levels for Afghanistan. Trump is expected to make a decision on the regional strategy sometime next month.
Then the world will begin to see whether Trump’s approach is different enough from Obama’s to get a different result.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist.