The mistakes Trump should not repeat in Afghanistan

Trump administration should revise key assumptions about Washington’s approach to Afghanistan.

US Presidential Inauguration reactions in Afghanistan
An Afghan man reads a local newspapers carrying front page news of the inauguration of US President Donald Trump in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 22 [Jawad Jalali/EPA]

Kabul has joined Moscow, Tel Aviv and a few other capitals in welcoming Donald Trump’s presidential administration. Although Trump has not yet elaborated on his policy towards Afghanistan, his harsh and blunt criticisms of Washington’s ills, of the opportunistic and duplicitous US allies and of the US’ failure to win wars resonate with many Afghans.

Trump is the fifth US president to deal with Afghanistan as a central foreign policy issue and national security concern. For his four predecessors – Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George W Bush and Barack Obama – Afghanistan was an inescapable crisis and an inherited challenge.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the terrorist attacks of 9/11 made the country one of Washington’s foreign policy priorities for nearly four decades.

Trump has now inherited a 16-year-old conflict with direct US military involvement and a political quagmire within a regime it helped install.

Kabul is paralysed by a stalled political process, rampant corruption, a resilient terrorist group and Pakistan’s stubborn obsession with making Afghanistan its strategic depth.

On his first day of his presidency, Trump encouraged US soldiers based in Afghanistan, saying, “Keep fighting. We’re going to win. We’re going to win.” As a hyper self-confident businessman with impeccable corporate skill, to win in Afghanistan where Obama failed, Trump needs to know that he cannot go about business as usual.

Past mistakes

In the coming weeks, Trump and his national security team will be reading and listening to many assessments and proposals on the way forward in Afghanistan. The new US administration must begin by critically examining Washington’s assumptions, approaches and partners in Afghanistan in a broader regional and global context.

One prevailing assumption in Washington is the perception of the US’ misplaced priority in promoting “nation-building” in Afghanistan, compounded by rampant Afghan corruption.

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Both Obama and Trump have criticised US involvement in “nation-building” in Afghanistan and promised to end it. However, neither of them defined or clarified their understanding of “nation-building”.

This confusion has been exacerbated by Washington’s simplistic and partial understanding of the root causes of corruption in Afghanistan and its denial of western entities having a role in it.

The massive waste, incompetence, corruption, hypocrisy, and unaccountability within western entities are actually significantly under-reported. The recently released report on the massive $125bn waste in the Pentagon, or the leaked information on the monthly payment of $150,000 by Ashraf Ghani’s election team to influence Washington’s view on fraud during the 2014 Afghan presidential election, show that corruption is not exclusively an oriental sin.

To paraphrase former US Sectary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the mission no longer determines the coalition in Afghanistan; instead, the many coalition members determine the mission, which results in incoherence and contradictions.


Afghanistan is the place where Trump’s criticism of NATO and European performance are valid.

The US has two types of European and NATO partners in Afghanistan: the reluctant partners and the dubious ones.

The former are some European allies, who would literally not fight after tea time due to the restriction on their combat role; the latter are those who systematically undermine US objectives by legitimising the Taliban in the guise of peace talks and shielding Pakistan’s detrimental policies in Afghanistan.

To paraphrase former US Sectary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the mission no longer determines the coalition in Afghanistan; instead, the many coalition members determine the mission, which has resulted in incoherence and contradictions.

Regional policy and the choice of regional partners is another area where Washington made a huge mistake. US policies have been primarily Pakistan-centric.

As early as 2003, Pakistan’s duplicitous role was recognised by US intelligence and diplomatic stations in the region, but Washington chose to ignore their warnings.

Despite growing evidence of Pakistan’s systematic support to various terrorist groups and its nuclear proliferation, Pakistan was recognised as US’ major non-NATO ally in 2004 and has received more than $30bn of military and economic assistance since 2002 (PDF). On the other hand, US’ natural ally in the region, India, has been constantly discouraged from assuming an active role in stabilising Afghanistan.

Washington’s wrong assumptions about Afghanistan and its unreliable Afghan partners compounded its other misfortune. Washington allowed British colonial thinking, Pakistan’s hegemonic agenda and a number of Afghan-Americans’ personal and ethnic ambitions to manipulate Washington’s mindset and shape US policies and strategies in Afghanistan.

These intellectual manipulations and misunderstandings resulted in three principal political and institutional errors. One is imposing one of the world’s most rigid centralised political orders on one of the world’s most diverse societies. This was followed by the institutionalisation of patronage politics and of political domination enjoyed by self-proclaimed representatives of one ethnic group at the expense of the consolidation of democratic politics.

Washington’s ambiguous relations with the Taliban was the third mistake. Despite Taliban’s consistent actions and rhetoric confirming they are an integral part of radical Islamist movements, the US diplomats and Obama administration treated the Taliban as a misguided indigenous rural Pashtun group.

The way forward

Unlike Syria which has become a land of no options, the post-Taliban political structure in Afghanistan still enjoys broad domestic, regional and international support, including bipartisan backing in the US.

The new US administration has to strengthen the principal foundation of this architecture: democratic and inclusive politics, regional consensus, and long-term international support, including US commitment to the Afghanistan-US Bilateral Security Agreement.

This has to be reinforced by addressing the wrong assumptions of the previous administrations, confronting Afghan and regional spoilers and fixing incompetencies in Washington and within the coalition.

Obama’s Afghan policy was premised on the idea of “peace through appeasement”. But the Afghan war can only be won by “peace through strength”, which can only be achieved through a functioning democratic and sovereign political order in Kabul.

Afghanistan is the place where Islamic radicalism was born and nurtured by the West, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and even Maoist China, in their ideological and geostrategic competition with the Soviet Union (PDF).

Although the US succeeded in defeating its arch communist rival in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it has been struggling to defeat its new global enemy: terrorist groups. Its victory in Afghanistan will also affect the global struggle against this threat, both symbolically and strategically.

Davood Moradian is the director-general of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies and former chief of programmes in President Hamid Karzai’s office and chief policy adviser to Afghanistan’s ministry of foreign affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.