Donald Trump is going to keep wrecking Afghanistan

As commander-in-chief, dealing with the realities of the region will not be as simple as shifting soundbites.

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed
6 December 2016
US marine, Farah province, 2009. Flickr/WBUR Boston's NPR News Station. Some rights reserved.

US marine, Farah province, 2009. Flickr/WBUR Boston's NPR News Station. Some rights reserved.Despite speculation that the president-elect might withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and abandon the country to its fate, this simply isn’t going to happen.

In 2013, Donald Trump tweeted, “Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.”

His isolationist message struck a nerve with voters, but later Trump tried to nuance his position.

While making clear that he believes the US “made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place,” he also said that the US would “probably have” to keep US troops in Afghanistan “because that thing will collapse in about two seconds after they leave.”

Trump’s actual position on what should be done about Iraq and Afghanistan does not sit easily with his supposed anti-war credentials. During his campaign, the business tycoon went out of his way to emphasise his criticisms of previous administrations’ interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

Yet when asked in 2015 about president Barack Obama’s plan to leave a sizeable US troop presence in Afghanistan by the end of his tenure, Trump said he agreed with this – and also that US troops should remain in Iraq: “I would leave the troops there begrudgingly believe me I'm not happy about it.”

Less than a week later, he evolved his position further, proceeding to deny ever having called the war in Afghanistan a mistake: “I never said it. Afghanistan is a different kettle. Afghanistan is next to Pakistan, it’s an entry in. You have to be careful with the nuclear weapons. It’s all about the nuclear weapons. By the way, without the nukes, it’s a whole different ballgame… Do I love anything about it? No. I think it’s important, number one, that we keep a presence there and ideally a presence of pretty much what they’re talking about – 5,000 soldiers.”

Trump had thus quietly shifted his position from being vehemently opposed to the war, to describing it as a huge mistake, to agreeing with it and supporting Obama’s plans to maintain an American military presence in the country.

As commander-in-chief, though, dealing with the realities of the region will not be as simple as shifting soundbites.

Like Iraq, the American adventure in Afghanistan remains a colossal failure. The Taliban now control more territory in Afghanistan than at any time since they were routed in 2001 after 9/11.

The war rages on with no end in sight. Six provincial capitals are either currently under siege by Taliban militants or are under threat of collapse. This year there have been 15,000 casualties among Afghan security forces and 5,100 civilians killed or maimed, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

The entrenched nature of the conflict has one important explanation that is often overlooked: Pakistan’s role in covertly supporting Islamist militants in Afghanistan. The secret policy, which has continued for several decades, has meant that despite the US spending well over $600 billion to fund the war effort, as long as our own key ally, Pakistan, still sponsors the enemy, our efforts are futile.

Trump, however, may have a different approach to Pakistan, which he recognises as playing a key role in secretly supporting militants across the border. A few years ago, he told one interviewer: “I don’t know that Afghanistan is much – as much of a problem – as Pakistan, because everyone is telling me they’re all in Pakistan; they’re not in Afghanistan.”

Pakistan’s double game in Afghanistan has already strained relations with the US and Afghan governments, which is why Pakistan was sidelined from the first round of peace talks in September. Yet the timid response to Pakistan is, arguably, a serious mistake of the Obama administration – Pakistan cannot simply be sidelined.

Trump could choose to exert greater pressure on Pakistan to crackdown on its relationships with Haqqani and Taliban militants – however, if he does so, this may have the opposite of the desired effect, pushing Pakistan into the orbit of Russian and Chinese power.

Pakistani analyst Suhail Waraich said that “Trump will increase pressure on Pakistani authorities to act against the militant Haqqani network, whom the US considers a terrorist group, and break ties with the Afghan Taliban. Trump’s muscle-flexing might force Islamabad to forge closer ties with China, which would pose a strategic challenge to the US.”

Nevertheless, at some point, a hard decision needs to be made: will the US continue to sacrifice Afghanistan to retain Pakistan within the geopolitical orbit of US strategic influence, and out of Russian and Chinese control?

If so, then we are still mired in the old geopolitics of Cold War-thinking. The reality is that while Russia and China should not be underestimated, it is not they that pose the immediate threat to Afghanistan: it is America’s own ally, Pakistan.

Yet Trump appears to be changing his tune on Pakistan, too. In April, although he stressed his desire to dramatically cut back US foreign aid, he made clear that he considered US military aid to Pakistan an exception to this rule. He would “try and keep” the “not that much” amount of foreign aid the US gives to Pakistan, to maintain what he called “a little bit of a good relationship” between the two countries.

Arguably, what Pakistan needs is less military aid – which shores up an unaccountable military intelligence elite – and more development assistance through programmes such as the Rural Support Programmes Networks (RSPN). The RSPN is a little-known grassroots civil society initiative which has mobilised over 4 million Pakistani households through local community organisations, provided skills training to nearly 3 million, and lifted approximately 30 million people out of extreme poverty.

The RSPN’s model has been successfully replicated in Afghanistan through the National Solidarity Programme (NSP). 

The NSP has reached out to 24,000 villages, mobilising nearly 70% of rural communities across all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. An independent evaluation by academics from Harvard, MIT and the New School found that the NSP had led to "significant improvement in villagers’ economic wellbeing" and "their attitudes towards the government" – "reducing the number of people willing to join the insurgents" leading to "an improved security situation in the long run."

The most robust bulwark against the recruitment efforts of groups like Afghanistan is not more troops, or even less troops – but robust, empowered grassroots communities.

Yet Trump has little interest in such initiatives.

US military policies in the region have indeed backfired. Trump is right about this much.

But the president-elect appears incapable of understanding, let alone implementing, the genuinely radical shift in American policy that is required to truly undermine the attraction of Islamist militancy.

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