Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

“Not nation-building,” but “killing terrorists”: Trump’s ‘new’ strategy for Afghanistan

Kate Clark 9 min

The American president’s long-awaited announcement on United States policy in Afghanistan has finally been made: more troops (number unspecified) and no end-date to the US deployment; fighting “to win” (defined only as preventing a Taleban take-over), aiming at “killing terrorists” and not “nation-building”; new, unspecified threats against Pakistan to stop supporting the Taleban and a call on India to do more and; postponing any attempt at a negotiated end to the conflict to a hoped-for and ill-defined future. AAN’s Kate Clark looks at President Trump’s ‘new strategy’ for Afghanistan and finds it to be little different from Obama’s, albeit announced with more bluster.

As Donald Trump has admitted (see the transcript of this speech here), he has made a U-turn on Afghanistan: “My original instinct,” he said in his announcement at Fort Myer, a US military base, on 21 August 2017, “was to pull out.” Indeed, in 2013, he had tweeted that “Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis [sic] we train and we waste billions there,” and “We are building roads and schools for people that hate us. It is not in our national interests.” Once in charge, however, he has been forced to change his mind: “[T]he consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable… A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11th.”

As his unhappy conservative base has noted – see the website of his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, Breitbart News (if it is difficult to access, see reporting of it here) – the new strategy is little different from Obama’s. The president, said Breitbart, has “flip-flop[ed].”

The other possibility that was floated was of privatising the war, sending in mercenaries instead of US soldiers. That did not get a mention in the speech, but it also did not preclude the greater use of contractors.

Indeed, the plan looks to be, pretty well, what was drawn up by the US commander on the ground, General John Nicholson, in partnership with President Ashraf Ghani and the Afghan government, seven months ago. (Read a transcript of Nicholson’s testimony to Congress in February here and an analysis of the plan here). Nicholson described the Afghan conflict then as in stalemate and said he aimed to tilt the war more in favour of the government, but with no illusion that the war could be ‘won’. There was just a vague desire that this would, in the end, lead to more favourable grounds for eventual political negotiations with the Taleban. Tilting the balance of the conflict, he believed, could be achieved by enabling the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to fight the Taleban better, by continuing US support to the government, limited US and other international troop increases to allow more advisors to be embedded at senior levels in the ANSF and reform of the Ministries of Defence and Interior. He also said there should be increased efforts to persuade Pakistan to stop supporting the Taleban. After seven months mulling over his Afghan strategy, Trump accepted his advisors’ counsel of the need to stay in Afghanistan.

What was in the speech

 Trump said that he had decided withdrawal was not a realistic option because of the sacrifices already made by US service-people which meant they “deserve[d] a plan for victory.” He said as well that a withdrawal would create a power vacuum, allowing terrorists to re-establish a safe haven in Afghanistan. He said the dangers were exacerbated by the high concentration of extremist groups based in Afghanistan and Pakistan and because Pakistan and India are nuclear powers.

He said the US was going to ‘win’ the war, but defined winning, not in terms of victory, but merely preventing the Taleban from winning:

Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win. From now on, 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.” (emphases added)

Trump specified several pillars of his new strategy. First, there would be no numbers or dates:

A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions. I’ve said it many times how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin, or end, military options. We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.

Conditions on the ground – not arbitrary timetables – will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.

This is a reaction to Obama’s announcements of withdrawal dates – which satisfied anti-war Democrats, but effectively helped the Taleban with their war planning. AAN warned in 2012, that “the US and other NATO member states may well be preparing the ground for more instability, rather than less.”

Secondly, Trump promised the “integration of all instruments of American power – diplomatic, economic, and military – toward a successful outcome.” He gave no more details, but it is worth noting that, there has been no permanent ambassador in Kabul since December 2016 and Trump dissolved the post of a separate Special Advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Thirdly, Trump said he would be taking a harder line against Pakistan.

…Pakistan has…sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people. We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately. No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. servicemembers and officials. It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace.

The Taleban insurgency could not survive in its current form or at its current strength without Pakistani backing and sanctuary. However, Trump’s threats are not specific and the US track record in trying to force or influence Islamabad to take action is not good. The US needs Pakistan’s land and air space to get military supplies in and out of Afghanistan so does not have an entirely free hand in dealing with Islamabad. There is also the fear that if the US cut its support to Islamabad, a more chaotic and extremist government might emerge, in control of nuclear weapons. (See Chris Kolenda for more on this, both what the US could do and its past failures). Finally, Pakistan has developed a way of dealing with such pressure since 2001, giving the US statements it wants to hear, creating hope that it will finally change its approach, while making sure its shadowy intelligence structures keep a free hand on the ground. Trump also wants India to do more “especially in the area of economic assistance and development.” There was no mention of other key regional players, either China, which does have traction in Islamabad, or Iran.

Fourthly, Trump said that “micromanagement from Washington, D.C. does not win battles.” He promised to “lift restrictions and expand authorities” for his military on the battlefield. Shifting responsibility to the generals in the field and the Secretary of Defence may also be useful if the war is not ‘won’ and he needs someone to blame down the line.

… we will also expand authority for American armed forces to target the terrorist and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan. These killers need to know they have nowhere to hide; that no place is beyond the reach of American might and Americans arms. Retribution will be fast and powerful.

Expansions in the authority to target already came under Obama (widened from only targeting al-Qaeda and its ‘associates’ to the Taleban) and have led to more US air strikes and, whatever else they may or may not achieve, more Afghan civilian casualties (70 per cent more in the first six month of 2017 than in the same period in 2016). It is worth noting that UNAMA (see AAN analysis here has called on both the US and Afghan air forces to be more restrained: “to refrain from the use of airstrikes in civilian-populated areas and apply greater restraint in the use of airstrikes in areas where civilians are likely to be present.” (These are part of a much longer list given by UNAMA – see footnote 1.) Targeting ‘criminal networks’ would breach International Humanitarian Law unless they are parties to the conflict and, it is worth remembering that there are criminal networks on both sides, the Taleban and the government.

Trump does not specify what he would allow his military to do that it is not already doing. Killing ‘terrorists’ in any numbers will anyway be quite difficult with the limited numbers of troops the US has on the ground and the fact that many, if not most are engaged in an advisory and training role, rather than combat. There is no official breakdown of the numbers of American troops involved in the NATO advisory mission and the US-only counter-terrorist, ‘can-be-combat’ mission, but General Nicholson said in February that “additional forces would enable us to thicken our advisory effort across the Afghan ministries and do more advising below the corps level.”

Trump has called on NATO allies to supply more forces, even though many have already committed to this, including  AustraliaNorway and the UK, but also said that the bulk of the effort must be made by Afghans:

Ultimately, it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future, to govern their society, and to achieve an everlasting peace. 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. We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.

Trump does not specify what he means by ‘nation-building’, (2) but since 2001, the US has veered between what has been cast as a ‘pragmatic line’ – killing terrorists, working with rights abusers as necessary, focussing on ‘stability’ rather than justice – and trying to encourage or enforce better governance. This looks to be a return to the former approach. Is this just empty rhetoric or will there be implications for the widespread support US gives to education, health and other services, and to trying to get democratic elections? Trump also made the threat that if Kabul does not do ‘nation building’ correctly, there will be (again unspecified) consequences:

America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress. However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check. The government of Afghanistan must carry their share of the military, political, and economic burden. The American people expect to see real reforms, real progress, and real results. Our patience is not unlimited. We will keep our eyes wide open.  

Trump also appears to have believed Ashraf Ghani’s promises that profits can be made in Afghanistan:

As the prime minister [sic] of Afghanistan has promised, we are going to participate in economic development to help defray the cost of this war to us.

Presumably, Trump was thinking of the US getting its share of Afghanistan’s untapped mineral wealth, although Ashraf Ghani (in his response to the speech) took a different slant, seeing the military plan as:

…part of a package of support enabling Afghans to achieve the goal of stability and self-reliance, by focusing on efforts for the eradication of poverty, economic investment, and better equipping the ANDSF to achieve its military objectives.

Trump’s announcement was full of strong words and bluster. He made threats, but they were unspecified – what will Trump do to Pakistan? What are the consequences if Afghans falter in their “determination and progress”? He expresses his aims forcefully, but in themselves, they are unclear – the US will fight to win, but what does ‘winning’ mean if not the defeat of the Taleban? Indeed, he contradicts himself here when he admits that, “Military power alone will not bring peace to Afghanistan or stop the terrorist threat arising in that country” and that, “strategically applied force aims to create the conditions for a political process to achieve a lasting peace.” Yet again, a negotiated solution to the conflict is postponed to an ill-defined, hoped-for future.

Afghan reactions

The Afghan government is happy. The US ambassador in Washington DC, Hamdullah Mohib couched the plan as a joint effort “on the front lines of this global struggle between good and evil. Daesh, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban – along with more than two-dozen other terror groups – threaten not just the people of Afghanistan but also the United States and other nations.” The Taleban, meanwhile, repeated their standard formula that Afghanistan was “not a threat for anybody, nor its soil would be used against anyone,” meaning that if they were back in power they would not interfere in anyone else’s affairs, and that “baseless claims and the intelligence propaganda could fuel bloodshed and war.” They also threatened that, if the US troops stayed, Afghanistan would become the “graveyard of the American empire.”

Trump’s strategy, while not new, does give the Afghan government some breathing space for the reforms that are needed to make the state and the ANSF more effective and accountable: if the state is not worth fighting for, if low and middle-ranking police and soldiers see generals and others pocketing money from the war effort, why should they fight to defend it against the insurgency? (For more on this, see our analysis of the Ministry of Interior here). President Ghani said in his response to Trump’s speech that, “The Afghan government is prioritizing acceleration of its rigorous reform agenda to eradicate corruption, and enhance effectiveness, transparency, and rule of law.” If reforms are not carried out, however, the breathing space could just be for those in the state who are making money out of the war time to make some more money.

One seasoned observer, former US ambassador Ron Neumann, writing on 16 August 2017 (see here), said he was more optimistic than he has been for many years, although recognising the continuing perils:

The three things that have so impressed me in my visit last month are in the reform of military leadership, civil service improvements, and anti-corruption efforts. None of the changes are complete, to be sure. All could be lost or reversed. The pushback against them from entrenched political elites is intense. The forthcoming elections may undercut them.

This summer has seen some of that pushback, a sharpened ethnicisation of politics and, already, the destabilising influence of the coming elections, which, incidentally, Trump did not mention. Elections always lead to a ‘churning’ of the elites as candidates seek to find political alliances and look for sources of money and patronage for getting votes. To put protégées of key allies behind bars for corruption, as is increasingly happening (media reports here and here), could harm the chances particularly of a president that wants to be re-elected. (3)

At least, Washington should now be a more steady backer: one source of anxiety causing sleepless nights in Kabul – the uncertainty over whether the US would stay or withdraw –has now been removed.


Edited by Thomas Ruttig



(1) UNAMA also called for:

…better planning call for better measures review current targeting criteria and pre-engagement precautionary measures to prevent civilian harm during aerial operations; and conduct transparent post-operation reviews and investigations following allegations of civilian casualties during aerial operations with a view to improving operational practice and accountability as well as to ensuring operations are carried out in line with international humanitarian and human rights law obligations.

(2) And as many Afghans would point out, their nation does not need building. The state, however, is a different matter.

(3) The more than two years overdue parliamentary elections were also not mentioned. However, the lack of a legitimate parliament creates an institutional gap in the Afghan system, making it more lopsided towards the executive power.



international engagement USA