P.J. Crowley is former assistant secretary of state and author of “Red Line: American Foreign Policy in a Time of Fractured Politics and Failing States.”
For the most part, President Trump’s speech laying out his strategy in Afghanistan earlier this week focused on policy and not politics, reaffirming America’s interest in preventing that country from again becoming a haven for terrorists. Despite his instincts to withdraw all remaining forces, a step that President Barack Obama also contemplated, Trump likewise decided the troops would remain.
But foreign policy is not immune to domestic politics. The president, in a gesture to his base, did fall back to a campaign pledge at one point in the speech:
“We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society,” Trump said. “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”
“Nation-building” has become something of a lightning rod in foreign policy for both parties. Obama often said that “nation-building begins at home.” There is not a great rhetorical distance from that narrative to “Make America Great Again.”
In reality, nation-building is the only strategy that is likely to produce the elusive exit from Afghanistan that American leaders have sought since 2001. The clearest path to success — even if it takes far longer than anticipated — is continuing to build the capabilities of the Afghan government.
Trump spoke of an integrated strategy in his speech, but there is no development surge included in that plan. In fact, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Trump administration, which has advocated deep cuts in the budgets of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, will actually spend less in Afghanistan going forward.
Instead, Trump spoke only of a military victory, signaling (without specifically announcing) a modest increase in troop levels and more aggressive rules of engagement. This renewed commitment sends the right signal. U.S. forces will still be there when his presidency ends.
But Trump has oversimplified the mission as killing more terrorists. The United States and its NATO allies have been doing that for 16 years, expecting battlefield success to generate a political settlement. All corners turned have led to stalemate, and no viable negotiations are in sight.
The actual U.S. exit strategy is not the defeat of the Taliban and its allies; it is the formation of an Afghan government strong enough to defend itself from insurgent groups and meddling neighbors. This is something Afghanistan, supported by the United States, would have to achieve through political negotiations — should they ever get off the ground.
It remains unclear whether the Taliban wants to negotiate. As such, creating leverage on the Taliban to negotiate is vital. Trump rightly called out Pakistan for playing a duplicitous role in Afghanistan and called on India to take on a greater role in the conflict. But while Trump threatened to withhold aid to Pakistan, again quite appropriately, Pakistan could retaliate by halting the resupply of U.S. forces through its ports. Meanwhile, increased Indian influence would likely generate counterproductive impulses from Pakistan as well.
Afghanistan has been called “The Great Game” for good reason. Russia and Iran have a stake as well. They played a constructive role in Afghanistan in 2001. They aren’t now. Trump’s regional approach is unlikely to gain traction if key neighbors are excluded from the process. (Who knew foreign policy could be so complicated?)
If the president truly wants to win, the Afghan government needs to be able to retake territory from the Taliban, hold it and govern it adequately; develop a more modern culture whereby Afghanistan invests in all its people, not half; build an economy based on legitimate enterprise, not narcotics; and connect Afghanistan to the rest of the region, making the country more sovereign and less the subject of geopolitical games.
Whatever you want to call it, it’s nation-building. This is not about charity. It’s about strategy. If the days of nation-building in Afghanistan are over, then the president lacks a path to success in Afghanistan.
Read more on this topic: