Along with military pressure to coax the Taliban into a peace process, the new U.S. plan for Afghanistan will support government reforms such as tackling corruption, economic development to make the country less dependent on foreign aid and diplomacy to persuade Pakistan to help—rather than hurt—the cause, top U.S. officials said in a briefing at the U.S. Institute of Peace today.

Farmers working in a field in the Shibar Valley, July 2016. The farmers’ unions in Afghanistan have helped ensure a more reliable and diverse food supply in an often famine-struck region, while also empowering its female leadership. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Adam Ferguson
Farmers working in a field in the Shibar Valley, July 2016. The farmers’ unions in Afghanistan help ensure a more reliable/diverse food supply, while also empowering its female leadership. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Adam Ferguson

“We’re not looking at nation-building or economic development as an end in itself,” said one of four senior administration officials who briefed two dozen policy experts from a range of research institutions to explain and respond to questions about the plan President Trump announced in a prime-time television address on Aug. 21. But support to Afghanistan is “necessary to protect the ultimate goal of a stable Afghanistan, where the government is in control of the territory and terrorists cannot set up shop there.”

The briefing aimed to add details to the military, political and economic plan the new administration will pursue to achieve the goal, which one official described as “a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban that protects vital U.S. national security interests.” The officials spoke on condition they not be identified by name, to allow a more candid discussion.

The plan calls first of all for increasing military pressure on the Taliban to reverse some of its gains in recent years, as the militants have retaken parts of Helmand Province in the south and briefly twice seized control of the major northern city of Kunduz. ISIS, too, has made inroads, prompting the U.S. to drop its largest non-nuclear bomb for the first time in combat in April, to destroy a system of bunkers and tunnels the group was using in Nangarhar Province in the country’s east. The influence of ISIS also is turning more Taliban members to further extremes, one of the senior officials said.

The heaviest burden … will still be borne by the Afghan people.

U.S. senior administration official

Trump’s announcement this week didn’t specify the number of American troops that might be added to the current contingent of 8,400, down from a peak of 100,000 in 2010-2011, but news reports say the Defense Department has authorization to add as many as 3,900. The U.S. will work with Afghan forces to step up counter-terrorism operations and to increase training, advising and assistance, the senior officials said. NATO allies and partners also will continue their contributions to the mission, they said.

“We believe this will send a clear message to the Taliban that you can’t wait us out,” one official said. “The heaviest burden, though,” another said, “will still be borne by the Afghan people and their security forces.” Afghanistan lost some 6,700 soldiers in the fighting last year alone, another official noted, adding, “I don’t think we can doubt the commitment of Afghan security forces.”

'Kabul Compact'

Government reform will be a key element to sustaining a more stable Afghanistan, the officials said. One outlined a recent “Kabul Compact” initiated by Afghan President Ghani and co-led by his governing coalition partner, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, as well as U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens and U.S. Army General John W. Nicholson, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. The four met this week to discuss the compact’s four lines of effort on governance, economic development, the peace process and security.

“The Afghans have already made significant progress on some of its elements, including replacing 150 ineffective or corrupt generals and filing corruption charges against prominent business people,” one official said. “The Afghans have to build their own nation; we can’t do this for them. But we can work with them as friends and encourage the kinds of reforms that we think are necessary.”

One official expressed confidence that the Trump administration will have the funding needed for a range of effective assistance to Afghanistan, considering its requested budget for fiscal year 2018 and remaining funding for longer-term projects such as infrastructure. “There’s no dearth of assistance to be working our objectives over the next several years.”

The U.S. also will revive regional peace efforts to persuade the Taliban to negotiate, including pressure on Pakistan to eliminate safe havens for the group across the border, and measures to cut off other supply lines. The officials didn’t specifically mention Russia and Iran, but reports have surfaced in recent months that the Taliban are getting weapons and other new support from those sources as well. 

The officials repeated several times that the U.S. considers Pakistan an “important partner” that shares many common interests—and enemies—and that the U.S. recognizes the sacrifices Pakistan has made in the fight against certain terrorist elements. The officials said they aim for a “mature, constructive relationship” with Pakistan even as the U.S. develops strategic ties with India and encourages India to support democracy and economic development in Afghanistan.

Nuclear Weapons

Pakistan and India have fought repeated wars and skirmishes along their disputed border, and Pakistan’s security establishment supports the Taliban to maintain influence over Afghanistan as a defense against being encircled by hostile forces. The fact that both Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons continues to concern the U.S., too, the senior officials said.

“We are particularly concerned by the development of tactical nuclear weapons that are designed for battlefield use,” one of the administration officials said. “We see these as more susceptible to terrorist theft and also increasing the likelihood of nuclear exchange in the region.”

As a result, the U.S. will urge India and Pakistan to take confidence-building steps and re-engage in dialogue about their points of tension.

But the U.S. reserves the right to use “more punitive, more disruptive, persuasive” measures if needed, and American officials will take up most such issues with Pakistani counterparts “in private,” one official said. U.S. talks will “mark a change in how we approach the challenge of terrorist safe havens in Pakistan,” and likely will play out over time, rather than immediately, the officials said. One reiterated Trump’s warning, saying Pakistan “has a lot to gain” by working with the U.S. and “a lot to lose if it fails to take adequate steps.”

The gains would include close involvement in any peace process for Afghanistan, as part of regional groupings. “We understand Pakistan has legitimate interests in Afghanistan and what happens there.”

The losses might involve, for example, U.S. security assistance, which already has fallen in recent years.

China could be key to “encouraging better behavior” by Pakistan and giving it the confidence “to engage in a more constructive fashion,” one official said. The Chinese “want to play a bigger role. We’ve seen the foreign minister do shuttle diplomacy between Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

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