How Trump Will Handle America's Longest-Running War

8 MINS READJan 12, 2017 | 09:30 GMT
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's plans for Afghanistan have not yet been made clear, but the lasting constraints on Washington's policy options have.
(DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Despite being sidelined by the United States and Afghanistan in secret negotiations with the Taliban, Pakistan eventually will be included in any formal talks on ending the Afghan war.
  • In response to the United States' efforts to exclude Pakistan, Islamabad will court the support of Russia and China in its position on the Afghan conflict.
  • Isolationist rhetoric aside, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump is unlikely to withdraw troops from Afghanistan before a peace deal has been reached. 

Donald Trump will be sworn in as the United States' 45th president on Jan. 20, replacing the only president in U.S. history to have served two terms at war — an ironic, if unceremonious, distinction for a man who also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. To date, President Barack Obama's administration has had some significant victories in the war in Afghanistan, not least of which was the killing of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, whose terrorist attacks instigated the United States' invasion of Afghanistan over 15 years ago.

Nevertheless, the Afghan conflict continues to drag on, and so far Trump has said little about how he plans to address it. In March 2012, prior to his bid for the presidency, Trump released a video arguing that the United States' decision to invade Afghanistan was a mistake and that its troops should withdraw. He stuck to a modified version of this view throughout the campaign season, presenting himself as a can-do technocrat with zero tolerance for waste. (A 2016 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction argued that Afghan officials have squandered much of the $115 billion in aid they received from Washington.) He has since conceded support, however, for the maintenance of a military footprint in the country — currently some 8,400 troops — to check its nuclear neighbor, Pakistan. Though it is too soon to predict what the details of Trump's policy on Afghanistan will look like, it is safe to say the incoming president is unlikely to pull U.S. troops out of the fight before a settlement has been reached to end the war that has plagued the country for over a decade.

Ambiguity in the Afghanistan Agenda

There are several things that might give Trump pause in withdrawing from Afghanistan. For one, despite the support of NATO air power and ground forces, the Afghan military still is incapable of defeating the Taliban on its own. Thanks to a small tax base and foundering economy, Kabul cannot fund its own troops. Until its finances improve, the Afghan government will continue to rely on foreign protection and cash to bolster its defenses.

Furthermore, the Heritage Foundation — one of the Trump administration's primary sources of policy recommendations in the think tank world — advocates keeping ground troops in Afghanistan. Trump is well aware that should U.S. forces suddenly withdraw, the Afghan military will almost certainly collapse, leaving the country ripe for the Taliban's taking. In the long run, ceding Afghanistan to the Taliban would impose a cost on Washington that is much larger than any benefits to be gained by freeing up those resources.

Washington has also made several attempts to reassure Kabul since the presidential election, messages that presumably bore Trump's stamp of approval. On Dec. 9, outgoing Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited Kabul to assure Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that the United States' commitment to his country would continue under the next administration. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon offered a similar promise during a more recent trip to the Afghan capital. Trump's nominee for national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has also emphasized the threat that a strengthening al Qaeda in Afghanistan poses, suggesting the need for a steady — if not greater — U.S. military presence in the country.

Contradictions in Pakistan Policy 

Trump's agenda with regard to Pakistan has been equally opaque. After dubbing Pakistan "probably the most dangerous country in the world" on the campaign trail, Trump reportedly praised the Pakistani people in his first phone call with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, just after winning the presidential election.

Regardless of the rhetoric, the United States has been working to diplomatically isolate Pakistan. Though Islamabad is arguably the most important foreign actor in Afghanistan, Washington has butted heads with it on several occasions. Last year, the United States caused an uproar in Islamabad when it refused to fulfill its promise to pay for a package of eight F-16 fighter jets for Pakistan. Tensions worsened when the Obama administration ordered a unilateral drone strike in Balochistan to kill former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. Then, in August, Washington withheld $300 million its Coalition Support Fund had allocated to Pakistan after Carter determined that Islamabad had failed to take satisfactory action against the Haqqani network, a group the State Department has designated a foreign terrorist organization.

Of course, the United States has its reasons for distancing itself from Pakistan. As the war in Afghanistan has stretched out, Washington's interest in the region has waned. Instead, its attention has shifted toward other foreign policy priorities, including building better ties with India — Pakistan's longtime rival — and fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Islamabad Pivots East

The United States' apathy, coupled with the uncertainty surrounding Trump's stance toward Pakistan, has encouraged Islamabad to search for new partners. On Dec. 27, Pakistani officials met with their Chinese and Russian counterparts in Moscow to discuss the Afghan conflict. Though it was the third meeting of its kind, it was the first to be publicized, no doubt a move on Islamabad's part intended to gauge Trump's reaction and spur movement in Washington's on-again, off-again negotiations with the Afghan government. Since September of last year, U.S. and Afghan officials have held at least two secret rounds of talks with the Taliban at the group's headquarters in Doha, Qatar. Feeling snubbed for not being invited to the talks, Pakistan vented its displeasure by arresting three of the numerous Taliban leaders it continues to host in Balochistan. The message was not lost on the Taliban, who quickly sent a delegation to Islamabad to complain about the arrests.

Unsurprisingly, Afghanistan had similar qualms about being left out of the trilateral talks in Moscow. Its Foreign Ministry warned Pakistan, China and Russia about the dangers of backing the Taliban, however indirectly. The three countries have since invited Afghan leaders to the next meeting, though they conspicuously neglected to extend the same invitation to Washington. So far, Pakistan's tactics seem to have worked in its favor: Ghani has asked recently appointed Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa to visit Kabul in 2017. (In Pakistan, the army shapes Islamabad's policy on Afghanistan.) Bajwa will probably use his first meeting with Afghan leaders to reiterate his government's desire that Kabul keep India at arm's length and include Pakistan in any of its future negotiations with the United States and the Taliban.

In fact, even Washington knows that booting Pakistan from the Afghan peace process completely is not an option. Part of Islamabad's long-standing strategy for limiting New Delhi's influence over Kabul has been to offer support to the Taliban. Because the militant group will likely have to be part of any power-sharing arrangement Afghanistan ultimately comes to in an effort to end the civil war, Pakistan will refuse to cut ties with it. The United States has begrudgingly accepted this fact as a constraint in how far it can push Islamabad away.

A Seat at the Table

Pakistan's newfound friendship with Russia and China will help to secure its place at the bargaining table even more. During the Moscow meeting, both countries agreed that the international community should show more flexibility in lifting U.N. sanctions — asset freezes, travel bans and an arms embargo — on 136 Taliban members (some of whom are now dead) to promote peace talks. Along with the removal of foreign troops from Afghan soil, eliminating sanctions has been one of the Taliban's key demands in exchange for laying down their weapons. Though the Taliban were not represented at the trilateral meeting, they expressed their approval of the statement against sanctions that emerged from it.

Russia and China, like Pakistan and the United States, recognize that the most likely outcome of the war in Afghanistan is a power-sharing deal that involves the Taliban. Because of this, each country is angling to leave room for itself to engage with the group. To this end, Beijing invited a Taliban delegation to visit China in July 2016 in hopes of exploring ways to suppress the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a militant group that trained under the Taliban in the 1990s and threatens to spread into Xinjiang province, among other topics. China has also invested in several energy and mining projects in Afghanistan that have languished amid the ongoing violence. Russia, meanwhile, confirmed in December 2016 that the Kremlin maintains contact with the Taliban (though it denied aiding the insurgency), and stemming the inflow of drugs from Afghanistan remains a chief concern for Moscow. Both countries also hope to keep militants from migrating to their territories or into neighboring Central Asian states.

Should Pakistan continue to be sidelined in the United States' talks with Afghanistan and the Taliban, it could use its sway over the militant group to arrange a parallel series of meetings with Russia and China as a means of increasing its leverage with Washington. If it does, the threat of diminishing influence in the talks — along with the knowledge that Pakistan's cooperation is ultimately vital to bringing the Afghan war to an end — will eventually persuade Washington to relent, allowing Islamabad a seat at the negotiations once more.

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