President Trump’s announcement of the new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan gives badly needed clarity to the Afghan government, the South Asia region and the American people that the U.S. will continue to provide enduring support as a means to prosecute the war on international terrorism. The speech was understandably heavy on military strategy. But it managed to slip in an important recognition of the fundamental role of regional politics, which will be key to eventually ending the war.

U.S. Army Capt. Aaron Daniele sits next to elders from the village of Tieranon in Pashmul, Afghanistan, in an effort to establish an Afghan Local Police unit in their village
U.S. Army Capt. Aaron Daniele sits next to elders from the village of Tieranon in Pashmul, Afghanistan, in an effort to establish an Afghan Local Police unit in their village. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Bryan Denton

The speech aimed for a rhetorical shift— away from promoting democracy and ‘nation building,’ toward a strategy of “principled realism.”  In fact, building democracy and governance has never been a core goal of U.S. policy but rather a necessary means to achieving the desired end state of a stable and terrorism-free Afghanistan. Fundamentally, the Trump strategy for Afghanistan continues the prior two administrations’ efforts, with three useful tweaks that build on lessons from the past 16 years.  

First, there will be no calendar deadline for U.S. troops and engagement. Unlike the Obama surge, which was slated to end in 2014, Trump said the new U.S. strategy would be based on conditions on the ground and would aim to eliminate ISIS and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, prevent the Taliban from taking over the Afghan government and prevent terrorist attacks on the U.S. from Afghan soil.

Another departure was to more directly threaten Pakistan with (unspecified) consequences for failing to end safe havens for terrorism. Trump singled out Pakistan’s support to the Taliban and the Haqqani network, which kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.  At the same time, Trump tempered his criticism by offering to forgo U.S. punishment if Pakistan’s leaders “do more” to fight terrorism.  This will require more clear articulation to spur action by Pakistan.

Trump also explicitly included India as part of the regional strategy to stabilize Afghanistan. Unfortunately, his focus was on urging India to step up economic and development support to Afghanistan, rather than the far more important issue of reducing tensions between India and Pakistan.  Improved India-Pakistan relations are needed to make Pakistan feel secure enough to drop support for the Taliban, which Pakistan maintains as a hedge against Indian influence in Afghanistan.

It is too early to say whether this new Afghanistan strategy is really new because the details where the devils lie—specific troop numbers or potential penalties on Pakistan if it fails to deliver, for example—were left for the State Department and the Department of Defense to fill in.

Just after the speech, Secretary of State Tillerson released a statement that took one line of Trump’s speech and announced a significant new policy: “The Taliban has a path to peace and political legitimacy through a negotiated political settlement to end the war. We stand ready to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban without preconditions.”

Such clear openness to negotiations with the Taliban could be a significant breakthrough. Simultaneously applying pressure with more troops on the battlefield and eliminating sanctuaries in Pakistan, while offering a viable alternative to fighting—a political settlement with the Afghan government that severs ties with al-Qaida and ISIS—the U.S. could move the conflict toward the “honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the enormous price that so many have paid.”

Related Publications

North Korea and China: The Endgame Behind the Headlines

North Korea and China: The Endgame Behind the Headlines

Friday, April 20, 2018

By: Fred Strasser

In the fast-moving diplomacy over North Korea’s nuclear program, the long-term interests of the country’s powerful neighbor China don’t make headlines. Yet behind China’s tactical moves such as President Xi Jinping’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last month lie strategic questions about what China—vital to any resolution of the North Korea nuclear issue—envisions as a satisfactory end state for the Korean Peninsula.

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Global Policy

Improving Afghanistan’s Public Finances in 2017–2019: Raising Revenue and Reforming the Budget

Improving Afghanistan’s Public Finances in 2017–2019: Raising Revenue and Reforming the Budget

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

By: William Byrd; Shah Zaman Farahi

The Afghan government has recently embarked on important reforms to the national budget, embodied in the 2018 budget approved by Parliament early this year. This budget sets in motion an envisaged two-year reform process to achieve greater overall transparency, better development programming, and reduced corruption. The third in a series on Afghanistan’s public finances, this report updates revenue performance in 2017 and assesses the new budgetary reforms, how the draft budget fared in Parliament, the outcome, and next steps and prospects for the reforms.

Economics & Environment

Evolving Cybersecurity Threats Require Bipartisan Approach

Evolving Cybersecurity Threats Require Bipartisan Approach

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

By: Adam Gallagher

We live in an age of immense technological innovation and disruption. While these technologies make our lives easier, criminal groups and terrorist networks have the tools to exploit them, as policymakers struggle to keep up with rapid pace of change. Terrorist groups like the Islamic State and rogue regimes like North Korea employ these technologies to illicitly finance their operations, often using cryptocurrencies in order to evade detection. Despite the partisan rancor in Washington, Republican and Democrat members of Congress are coming together to counter illicit financing and wrestle with these emerging policy challenges.

Economics & Environment; Global Policy; Violent Extremism

View All Publications