President Trump introduced a long-awaited new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan that differs substantively and positively from the Obama administration policy. The change in policy is a welcome and necessary transition that reflects the reality that conditions in Afghanistan are not the same as they were in 2001, or even 2009 when Obama approved a surge in U.S. troops in Afghanistan. New conditions necessitate a new strategy.
First, and arguably most importantly, Trump signaled a transition from a timeline-based strategy to a conditions-based plan of action. This represents a sharp departure from the Obama administration’s policy which set timelines for troop withdrawal starting in 2011. President Obama also announced in advance the handover from U.S. troops to Afghan security forces in 2014, and the anticipated full withdrawal at the end of 2016.
Trump did not set a timeline for complete withdrawal, stating that the U.S. needs to focus on conditions on the ground, not arbitrary dates to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
“From now on," Trump said, “victory will have a clear definition. Attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing Al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.”
Unlike Obama, Trump's Afghan strategy doesn’t provide the Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS or any other forces that seek to attack America advanced notice on U.S. actions in the region. This strategy will instead capitalize on the element of surprise in U.S. strategy.
Second, the new strategy seeks to empower the Afghan government and the Afghan people. The U.S. today does not lead combat operations in Afghanistan. U.S. forces’ primary role is to train, advise and assist the ANSF. While Trump did not announce precise troop levels, as had been anticipated prior to his speech, earlier estimates suggest that the U.S. may deploy an additional 3,800 troops in addition to the 8,400 currently in Afghanistan.
Critically, Trump signaled a transition from the Bush era of nation-building in Afghanistan to one focused on safeguarding U.S. national security considerations in the region. He emphasized that the U.S. does not seek to remake Afghanistan in America’s image and instead focused on the need for Afghanistan to take ownership of its own political and democratic transition.
This change in policy should not signal a shift away from a desire to see freedom and prosperity for the Afghan people. It should instead reflect the reality that without security, democratic institutions and political transformation cannot occur. And without the political will of the Afghan people standing behind such a reform process, it won’t happen at all.
Third and finally, Trump expressed a desire for a more regionally-based effort to address challenges in Afghanistan. The speech signaled a more broad-sweeping U.S. strategy — not just toward Afghanistan, but toward South Asia.
Trump intends to ratchet up pressure on Pakistan, for example. While Pakistan has proven a valuable partner to the U.S. in the fight against terrorism, it has simultaneously acted as a terrorist safe-haven to a number of groups that threaten U.S. security.
Earlier this year, Lisa Curtis, senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council and my former colleague at The Heritage Foundation, co-authored a hard-hitting piece with Husain Haqqani. In it, they say:
To accomplish U.S. counterterrorism objectives in the region and to reverse extremist trends in Pakistani society, Pakistani authorities – specifically the country’s military leaders, who control its foreign and security policies – need to take a comprehensive approach to shutting down all Islamist militant groups that operate from Pakistani territory, not just those that attack the Pakistani state.
Pressuring Pakistan to address the terrorist threat while endorsing the positive role India plays in role in providing development assistance has the potential to greatly improve things in the region. The link the president made to the benefits India gains from mutually advantageous trade with the U.S. was unfortunate and misguided, but encouraging the region to take ownership of challenges in its neighborhood is a positive development in U.S. strategy.
U.S. leadership in the fight against terrorism remains critical. The new strategy in Afghanistan advances U.S. and Afghan national interests and offers hope that the U.S. will continue to lead.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 8/23/17