During a phone call in December, Donald Trump told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani he would consider sending additional troops to the country. Despite this, Trump has said little publicly about Afghanistan or his strategy for its sixteen-year-old war.
Rather than just sending more troops, Trump must rethink the U.S. approach to Afghanistan. Decades of civil wars and destructive foreign interference have created complexities in the country that current U.S. and NATO strategies do not take into account.
At the moment, the Afghan government controls less than 60 percent of the country, while the Afghan Taliban exerts its influence over more districts than it has since 2001. While most civilian casualties go unnoticed, there was a record high of 7920 injuries and 3498 deaths in 2016, related to the country’s on-going conflict.
Although journalistic and so-called expert writing on the country is often oversimplified, some specialists have written well-informed pieces. They are the people Donald Trump should consult, in crafting his Afghan policy.
Last month, Milo Comerford, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, and Thomas Ruttig, three experts on Afghanistan, wrote an insightful analysis titled “US Policy in Afghanistan: What to Expect from Trump” for the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics. All three experts agreed that Trump cannot–like he claimed he would–eradicate radical Islamic terrorism “from the face of the Earth.” For his part, Rutting warned that Trump’s strategy for eliminating terrorism in Afghanistan may look much like the United States’s disastrous January anti-Al-Qaeda raid in Yemen, “ including the number of civilian casualties caused and the not too apologetic White House reaction to this fact.”
Still, with a well-informed strategy, Trump could have a positive impact in Afghanistan. According to Comerford, ”America’s longest war requires fresh thinking, and for many, a Trump administration might provide just that.” As Comerford suggests, Trump’s good relations with Pakistan and his willingness to work with the Kremlin could open new paths to peace in Afghanistan.
Pakistan is considered the Taliban’s main supporter—although the insurgents also receive Saudi money. Russia—with China’s participation–and Iran have also openly allied themselves with the Taliban. They claim that supporting the group is the best bet for preventing the Islamic State in Iran’s Khorasan Province from spreading.
Last December, General John W. Nicholson expressed concerns over this foreign support for the Taliban. According to the general, Russia has used the group “as a way to essentially undermine the Afghan government and the NATO effort and bolster the belligerents.”
For Gartenstein-Ross, Trump absolutely must not leave Afghanistan. “The effect of a decrease in US involvement would, bluntly, be to pull the Band-Aid back from Afghanistan’s problems. It would bleed out more quickly,” he argued. Ruttig insisted that, if the United States stops funding reconstruction, Afghan politicians will focus on their internal power struggles instead of policies.
But, involvement in Afghanistan must go beyond defeating the Taliban. As long as Afghanistan remains one of the poorest and most dysfunctional countries in the world, defeating the insurgent group and sending billions of dollars to a weak government will not prevent it from turning into a terrorist haven. Rather, what the United States must do is leave Afghanistan with a functioning state so its people can live decent lives.