Washington, DC – As newly deployed American forces begin to arrive in Afghanistan on President Donald Trump’s orders, a larger strategic question hangs over their purpose. Can the United States win enough cooperation from Pakistan and key powers in the region to forge a political settlement between the Afghan government in Kabul and Taliban insurgents?
The answer for Trump and his top advisers appears to be “not yet”, and seven months into his four-year term the president is reversing a campaign promise to withdraw from Afghanistan. Instead, Trump is sending about 3,900 more troops to bolster some 11,000 US forces already there – and has put Pakistan on notice.
“If you want to put pressure on the Taliban and you want to do things that maximise the prospect of it coming to the peace table, you actually need to go into Pakistan and start targeting the Taliban leadership,” said Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, an independent think-tank in Washington.
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“If you want to hit the Taliban where it hurts, you have got to go into their sanctuaries, and this is a very fraught, delicate matter because this gets into the very tricky US-Pakistan relationship,” Kugelman told Al Jazeera.
Trump announced the shift in US posture in a nationally televised speech before a military audience at Ft Myer on August 21. Instead of adhering to a timeline for withdrawal, which former President Barack Obama had attempted, Trump’s policy will be “conditions-based”, which effectively commits the US to remain in Afghanistan for four more years.
Trump is giving the American military more latitude to use air power and special forces to support the Afghan army. What had been largely a train-and-advise mission since 2014 is now shifting towards a more lethal posture.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis signed deployment orders on August 31 and will brief members of the US Congress on details this week. And the White House announced it would withhold $300m in security aid from Pakistan until the Trump administration is satisfied Pakistan is taking measures against the Taliban.
“When the president talked about getting tough on Pakistan, we have heard that before from US governments that have taken certain actions in the past to try to pressure Pakistan, including withholding certain types of military aid,” said Michael Fuchs, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration.
“The United States has been fearful of Pakistan, of the relationship blowing up and Pakistan withdrawing its support for our efforts in Afghanistan and our access to Afghanistan,” Fuchs told Al Jazeera. “I don’t see anything from this administration to date that would make me believe that they are willing or intending to try something significantly different from what’s been tried in the past.”
Obama administration relations with the Pakistan government deteriorated after the night-time US raid to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in 2011 but appeared to improve through a rapprochement until a US drone attack in May 2016 killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in Balochistan.
US analysts view Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and other groups, such as the Haqqani Network, as rooted in Pakistan’s larger strategic contest with India, over which the US has little leverage. India is providing training for the Afghan military and Trump has invited New Delhi to play a greater economic role.
Reaction in Pakistan to Trump’s new policy has been negative. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said the increased military presence in Afghanistan would be doomed to fail without a political settlement. Pakistan Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif delayed a planned trip to Washington to meet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and embarked on a trip to Moscow and Beijing. Politicians in Pakistan are calling for a rejection of US aid and closer ties with China, which has been investing in infrastructure projects.
“Pakistan has cancelled all diplomatic interaction with the US around Afghanistan and is looking for support from China,” said Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
“Nobody, not Trump and not the US military, claims that these troops alone are enough to stabilise Afghanistan. That is why there is a need for a regional approach, though not necessarily the one Trump adopted, and a political settlement,” Rubin told Al Jazeera.
Neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban appears ready to engage in serious peace talks. With the drawdown of US troops, the Taliban have been attacking more aggressively and have gained partial control over about 40 percent of the country, mostly in rural areas. The Taliban routinely re-take areas cleared by the Afghan army and conduct attacks designed to undercut public confidence in the US-backed Afghan government in Kabul.
“The Taliban itself has no interest in the immediate term in launching a peace process, simply because it is on the offensive. There is not nearly enough pressure on the battlefield to justify a decision on the part of the Taliban to step off and start talking. The mindset of the Taliban is probably, why quit when you are ahead,” Kugelman said.
In the US military’s semi-annual assessment to Congress in June, General John Nicholson Jr, commander of US Forces – Afghanistan, said the Taliban’s exploitation of ungoverned sanctuaries outside of Afghanistan – read Pakistan – “is the single greatest external factor that could cause failure of the coalition campaign”.
In addition to US troops, NATO and alliance partners have more than 6,500 troops in the theatre. The Afghan National Army numbers about 175,000, including the Afghan air force.
Afghan government forces suffer from poor leadership in some areas, a lack of care for those wounded or killed, inconsistent pay, bad training and inadequate living conditions, according to Defense Department reports.
President Ashraf Ghani has agreed to a four-year plan to re-invent the Afghan military by expanding its special forces and air force with continued American help. The plan envisions large-scale manoeuvres in 2020 to break the stalemate with the Taliban.
Trump has calculated that as long as he keeps Afghanistan from blowing up or sliding into civil war like Iraq, he can afford to keep US troops engaged without paying too high a domestic political price, according to Shibley Telhami, a pollster and professor at the University of Maryland. The risk is that there could be a sharply higher rate of US casualties that would shape the American public’s opinion of the nearly 17-year war and the president.
“The real issue for Trump is whether there would be a mess that he would be blamed for,” Telhami told Al Jazeera.
“The rhetoric, particularly on Pakistan, has to be problematic for the president. It already has been. The question is whether it will backfire. That’s the thing to watch for now, is how the White House manages its relationship with the Pakistanis. That is much more likely to be problematic than the immediate policy in Afghanistan.”