If Hillary Clinton had won Tuesday’s race for the White House, the world would now have a good sense of who her top officials would be and what her foreign policy would look like. With a Secretary of State-turned-president, Afghanistan could have expected business to carry on pretty much as normal. With Donald Trump coming into office in January, however, nothing is certain. The US is Afghanistan’s main backer in terms of funding and foreign troops and also has a substantial continuing influence on government policy. Whatever readers may think about the US role in Afghanistan, any major or sudden shift in US policy would be bound to have huge repercussions. So, despite AAN being the Afghanistan, not the America, Analysts Network, senior analysts Thomas Ruttig and Kate Clark have had a first attempt at working out what the Trump presidency might mean for Afghanistan.The NUG, brought to light by 'midwife' John Kerry in 2014, will be part of Obama's Afghan legacy for President Donald Trump. Photo c/o US Embassy Kabul
Foreign policy was not exactly a key issue in the election campaign and Afghanistan – where America is fighting its longest war ever – barely featured at all. It got one (factual, rather than policy) mention in the first Clinton v Trump televised debate (see video in this article) and failed to make it into the second and third debates at all. Associated Press has tried to find a reason why this happened:
The next president will face a new set of tough choices on Afghanistan early in his (…) term, including whether to increase or reduce U.S. troop levels and, more broadly, whether to continue what might be called Obama’s minimalist military strategy. The difficulty of these choices may explain, at least in part, why Trump and Clinton have been largely silent on Afghanistan.
The most striking mention of Afghanistan probably came when Trump campaign spokeswoman Katrina Pierson appeared on CNN in October 2016 and, speaking about 2007, said: “Remember, we weren’t even in Afghanistan by this time. Barack Obama went into Afghanistan.” Perhaps, she mistook the ‘surge’ for the 2001 invasion. During a campaign event in September 2016, Trump also used Afghanistan rhetorically, comparing it favourably with US inner cities – said: “You can go to Afghanistan. You can go to war-torn countries and you will find that it’s safer than being in the middle of some of our inner cities.” (The numbers were unpacked and found wanting on the BBC’s programme on statistics in the news.) (1)
The president-elect and his camp’s lack of foreign policy experience and, apparently, knowledge or memory of the continuing US ‘mission’ in Afghanistan is frightening. He has not spoken about Afghanistan much, but what he has said is picked through below. There are a few caveats. Firstly, Trump has made some strong, but often superficial and sometimes contradictory, statements about a whole range of foreign policy or foreign policy-related issues. Some of these were also later retracted, or toned down – such as blocking Muslims from entering the US (see the BBC’s collection of “30 things Donald Trump believes”).
Also Trump will not be ruling alone, of course, and US presidents have far less direct power than leaders in many other systems (the constitution aims to check, balance and, in many cases, delay presidential powers). Also, although Senate, House of Representatives and president will all soon be Republican, many elected Republican politicians did not support his candidacy, so that may also curb his power to act. On the other hand, as Newsweek argues, for example, “the views of Congressional Republicans may not even be relevant, given the executive’s dominance of foreign policy.”
Much of what Trump does, as well, will depend on who he appoints to key positions. About this, there is, as yet, little clarity. The influential blog, Politico, has some names but says that, first, “Trump’s divisive campaign may make it difficult for him to attract top talent, especially since so many politicians and wonks openly derided the president-elect over the past year,” and, secondly, that his transition team has stepped up identifying candidates, but holds its cards very close to its chest.
There is a compilation of the ‘positions’ of the Trump-Pence campaign on its official website (2) in bullet-point form, entitled “Foreign Policy and Defeating ISIS.” Under the sub-heading “Donald J. Trump’s Vision”, a number of principles can be found, culminating in the following: “Advance America’s core national interests, promote regional stability, and produce an easing of tensions in the world.”
Peace, the website says, would be “peace through strength.”
The title shows that the war against the Islamic State (IS, ISIS or Daesh) is Trump’s priority, apparently equal to all other foreign policy issues. Although the emergence of Daesh did galvanise Obama into getting involved more fully in Syria and (again) in Iraq, and to sign off (an increasing number of) airstrikes against the group’s Afghan-Pakistani chapter, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) (AAN analysis here), in Afghanistan again, the outgoing president’s foreign and Afghanistan policies have encompassed far more than just addressing the Daesh threat. Obama has also massively increased the drone war in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, (although not all targets are suspected Daesh fighters). Trump, however, has repeatedly said the US military under his presidency would “quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS.” However, Trump was also speaking more about the Middle East here, rather than Afghanistan; he linked bombing ISIS with stopping Syrian refugees entering America (elsewhere he has promised to kick out any Syrian refugees who were already in the US). Although military lawyers would be unable to sign off anything that broke Geneva Conventions, Trump’s sentiments are clear.
In general, Trump wants to “rebuild our military, enhance and improve intelligence and cyber capabilities.” The US media expects that military spending will increase under Trump, so much so that, in March 2016, the investment magazine Fortune was already recommending the defence industry as their best buy: “Here Are the Stocks to Buy if Donald Trump Becomes President.” On 11 September 2016, there were reports that the shares of large armament companies had risen by up to over ten per cent.
On the other hand, Trump also wants to save money on some other aspects of military spending. He finds NATO a “rip-off” because US allies pay too little of its budget, although, in general, he was “all” for the alliance. He also announced a desire to collect “reimbursements” from countries protected by US troops (he singled out South Korea, Germany and Saudi Arabia. He has also been quoted as saying that his government would not automatically come to the aid of the Baltic states in case of a Russian attack. (He, though, tried to reassure Poland.)
This brings us to Afghanistan. If Trump does not want to risk American soldiers’ lives even for NATO allies, then why for Afghanistan? There are indeed some tweets from his official account – some though from 2013 – suggesting he is in favour of dropping US support to the country:
Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis [sic] we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.
It is time to get out of Afghanistan. We are building roads and schools for people that hate us. It is not in our national interests.
Interviewed live on CNN in October 2015, he again said completely different things in almost one go: “We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place.” And: “I’ve never said we made a mistake going into Afghanistan.” He also asked whether US troops were “going to be there for the next 200 years?” – only to descent partly into incomprehensiveness: “At some point what’s going on? It’s going to be a long time.” And:
OK, wouldn’t matter, I never said it. Afghanistan is a different kettle. Afghanistan is next to Pakistan, it’s an entry in. You have to be careful with the nuclear weapons. It’s all about the nuclear weapons. By the way, without the nukes, it’s a whole different ballgame.
On his website’s foreign policy part, there is no trace of Afghanistan. ISIS is featured and “nuclear Iran,” which he called “the single gravest threat, national security threat” in a campaign speech (quoted here) and “the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.” He said the 2015 international deal to curb Iran’s nuclear programme could lead to a “nuclear holocaust” and, in a speech to the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC in March, declared that his “Number-One priority” would be to “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” He later did concede it would be hard to destroy a deal enshrined in a United Nations Security Council resolution and, in August 2015, retracted his threat to “rip up” the deal, adding that he would “police that contract so tough they don’t have a chance.”
Although Afghanistan is, in the terminology used on Trump’s website, among the “fully operational” Daesh branches “in 18 countries,” ISIS in Afghanistan only gets a specific mention as the birthplace of both the father of the perpetrator of the June 2016 Orlando gay night club killings (the father was also said to have “supported the oppressive Taliban regime”) and the young Afghan refugee who attacked train passengers in Germany in July this year. In other words, Afghanistan features as a place where migrants come from who could have ISIS connections and might end up killing Americans in America.
‘Nation-building’, torture, Guantánamo
The Trump foreign policy ‘positions’ do contain an ambition to “end the current strategy of nation-building and regime change,” another hint – as in his tweets – that he sees a lot of the US spending in Afghanistan as futile. Whatever one might think of US spending in Afghanistan – and it can rightly be criticised for waste and its contribution to systemic corruption in the country – the US is by far the largest spender on the Afghan armed forces and government. Without US financial support, it is difficult to imagine the state, in its current form, surviving. The US also plays a political role, for example as wedding broker between Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah after the bitter Afghan presidential run-off, and mid-wife to their National Unity Government agreement in 2014. US ambassador Mike McKinley, Secretary of State John Kerry and occasionally Barak Obama by telephone have also continued to provide ‘marriage guidance counselling’ to the two Afghan leaders. Would the government still be standing without that pressure and cajoling?
Also likely to drop from any US agenda under a Trump presidency is support for democracy and democrats, and human rights and their defenders. For example, Trump told CNN that he believes the situation in both Libya and Iraq is “far worse” now than it ever was under Muammer Gaddafi and Saddam Hussain and that he would not pressure Turkey’s President Erdoğan over his crackdown on civil liberties. He has also praised the autocrat Russian president, Vladmir Putin, as a strong leader, “far more than our president has been a leader,” “a talented person” who had “great control over his country.” One hundred Republican ‘security leaders’ said, in an open letter published in March 2016 (more of whom below), Trump’s “admiration for foreign dictators such as Vladimir Putin is unacceptable for the leader of the world’s greatest democracy.”
On torture and the fate of the war on terror detentions camp at Guantánamo Bay, Trump has also taken extreme positions. Unlike Obama, he wants to keep the detention facility, where there are five remaining Afghan inmates, open and has even talked about adding to the inmates and including US supporters of ISIS. He has praised the use of torture. He said, for example he liked waterboarding, eventually outlawed by President Bush in 2006 as potentially illegal and ineffective, “…a lot. I don’t think it’s tough enough.” Even if it did not work, he said, he would authorize it because “they deserve it anyway for what they do to us.”
In September 2016, a group of former US military commanders, special representatives and ambassadors to Afghanistan as well as think tankers – including some with Republican, others with Democratic leaning – wrote an open letter to both candidates in the magazine The National Interest (full text and signatories here). They called the open letter “Advice to the next U.S. president” and suggested to stick to the “enduring partnership with Afghanistan.” They argued that:
The very enormity of that U.S. investment to date, and the value of Afghanistan in the broader struggle against jihadi extremism, argue strongly for trying to sustain—and build on—the progress we have collectively achieved so far.
The new president would have, they continue, “an opportunity to settle Afghan policy onto a more durable, more effective, and less demanding course… for a long-term American—and coalition—role in the country that avoids the recent pattern of nearly annual reassessments of whether the United States should stay, militarily and as a major donor [and] publicly-announced withdrawal timelines.” It mentioned “unconditional” commitment – although at the same time referring to the 2015-2024 “decade of transformation.” At the moment, from what Trump has said, the experts’ thinking would seem a long way from his ‘natural’ response to the 16-year US involvement in the country.
Another collective statement, this time in response to the possibility of a Trump presidency, from one hundred senior Republican ‘security leaders’, came in the already mentioned March 2016 open letter. They said Trump was unfit to be commander-in-chief and was “fundamentally dishonest.” It further stated that:
His vision of American influence and power in the world is wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle. He swings from isolationism to military adventurism within the space of one sentence.
His advocacy for aggressively waging trade wars is a recipe for economic disaster in a globally connected world.
His embrace of the expansive use of torture is inexcusable.
His hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric undercuts the seriousness of combating Islamic radicalism by alienating partners in the Islamic world making significant contributions to the effort. Furthermore, it endangers the safety and Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of American Muslims.
Some personnel issues
Given Trump’s inexperience, The Washington Post and The Guardian suggest that the new president might just leave the job “to select personnel and coordinate policy” to his Vice-President Mike Pence whom the Post calls “at the very least a known quantity, [as] a former member of the House [of Representatives…] and a straight shooter.” He may also “delegate foreign policy to Republican insiders such as Stephen Hadley, George W Bush’s national security adviser who is rumoured to be interested in reprising his role.” (3)
The Daily Beast reported that when it comes to security positions in particular, Trump is already having trouble building a transition administration:
Team Trump is struggling to fill numerous key slots or even attract many candidates because hundreds have either sworn they’d never work in a Trump administration or have directly turned down requests to join, multiple current and former U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the transition efforts told The Daily Beast. Team Trump didn’t expect to win until the campaign’s internal polling a month before the election signaled a possible victory. That’s when senior Trump officials went into overdrive, trying to build a bench of experienced national security candidates with top secret clearances willing to work for a Trump presidency—and they met resistance across the landscape of experienced [Republican] national security professionals.
Those men who signed the anti-Trump letter, The Daily Beast contended, would not be offered jobs in the new administration.
Those who are known to be onside with Trump include retired Navy commander and campaign security adviser, Jeffrey D Gordon, who served for four years as a spokesman under Defence Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates and General Michael T Flynn, a former Democrat who ran the Defense Intelligence Agency under Obama from spring 2012 to autumn 2014 and was Trump’s “top military advisor” during the campaign. Flynn had been a contender for the vice-presidency, although it finally went to Pence. Politico calls Flynn “Trump’s favorite general”; The New York Times writes that, “No one else on Mr. Trump’s national security team comes with the pedigree of General Flynn.“
This pedigree includes a number of tours in Afghanistan when he served as director of intelligence in the following units and organisations: in Combined Task Force 180 that directed all Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) operations in the country (until July 2002), at the Joint Special Operations Command, US Central Command (CENTCOM; June 2007 to July 2008) and the joint staff of ISAF and the US Forces-Afghanistan (from July 2008 to June 2009) and for all ISAF (from June 2009 to October 2010) when he spoke out publicly about how poor US human intelligence in Afghanistan was. Since then, however, he has moved away from the mainstream. In 2014, he was sacked as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, according to the White House because of ‘leadership issues’, but according to Flynn himself because of “the stand I took on radical Islamism and the expansion of al-Qaeda” vis-à-vis a “politicized” intel system. He tweeted that “fear of Islam is rational” and has said, “We are at war with a radical component of Islam and the way I believe it is that Islam is a, is a political ideology based on a religion.”
Other names coming up for senior positions, according to Politico, include Republican politicians such as Tennessee Senator Bob Corker or current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for Secretary of State and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions for Secretary of Defense. Jeff Sessions was in charge of talking to the media in Trump’s defence plans (see here). Trump is also reported to be eyeing former US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, famous for his deep dislike of the UN.
There is also talk in Washington about a more familiar figure to Afghans – he introduced Trump at an event, but maybe that was simply because he was chair of the hosting board (a video of that here):
…Zalmay Khalilzad, an ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations under President George W. Bush, may be in line for a position. Khalilzad, who introduced Trump before a foreign-policy speech in Washington in April, did not rule out serving in a Trump administration in a recent CNN interview.
In Afghanistan, the country’s two leading politicians, President Ashraf Ghani and CE Abdullah (press releases here and here), have, as is diplomatically usual, congratulated the winner. Both, in not too different words, emphasised the US’ importance as a “strategic partner“ to Afghanistan, particularly, as the Ghani statement put it, in the development of the country and fighting terrorism. Two former intelligence chiefs, Amrullah Saleh and Rahmatullah Nabil, were more open in expressing what many Afghans hope for – that, in Nabil’s words, the US would tackle the safe havens in and “supporter of terror” Pakistan.
Former president Hamed Karzai, who continues to speak out on political issues and is sometimes suspected of continuing to harbour political ambitions (see for example here), joined in the congratulations quickly. This despite the fact that Trump, in a 2013 tweet when Karzai was refusing to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement said, “Can you believe that ‘President’ Karzai of Afghanistan is holding out for more, more, more and refuses to sign deal. Tell him to go to hell!” After the Trump win, Karzai tweeted that he hoped for “change in the US policy towards Afghanistan and the campaign against #terrorism. Focus on sanctuaries beyond #Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan has always had a US Republican fan base which believed the Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld ‘war on terror’ was exactly what the country needed, only more of it – to smash the Taleban militarily and, even more so, make Pakistan give up on supporting them. So, there also currently illusions might prevail.
The Taleban, unsurprisingly, asked Trump to withdraw “all US forces” from the country as the “most important” issue. Their statement continued (via direct quote from Pajhwok’s Pashto service):
Our message to America’s the new president is that he should draft government’s future policy in a way that does not mute the independence of other peoples in the world and does not seek [US] self-interest through other nations’ destruction and detention, so that the whole world can be in security and ongoing crises can find an end.
Hazards for Afghanistan
Issues that may rebound on Afghanistan from a Trump presidency would include his openly hostile attitude towards Muslims and Muslims coming to America and his dislike of the Iran nuclear deal. Whether or not he could or, once in office, would still want to dismantle that deal is not clear, but if he did, that would constitute a real hazard for Afghanistan, increasing the danger of a war in the region.
Trump’s strong element of isolationism is deeply relevant to Afghanistan. If that prevails, Afghanistan might lose both military support and financial transfers. This, as the ‘experts’ letter to the future president quoted earlier argues, would mean, in practice, that the 2001-16 one trillion dollar US investment in Afghanistan would have to be written off. That might be difficult, particularly as cutting support would be at odds with Trump’s criticism of Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq, particularly if it looked like the US was turning tail and fleeing the Taleban. Trump, keen to promote an image of the US becoming “strong again” surely would not want that. However, given what he has said on ‘nation-building’ and ‘ungrateful’ Afghans, it is not impossible to imagine. A reduction in spending looks even more possible. Given that Afghanistan is more dependent on US largesse than almost any other country, what Trump finally decides on as his Afghan policy will have a large influence on the country’s fate.
(1) Trump was not the first to pull off a bad comparison. In 2010, a high-ranking NATO official in Kabul stated that “Here in Kabul and the other big cities [in Afghanistan…], the children are probably safer (…) than they would be in London, New York or Glasgow or many other cities.“ He later said the comparison “wasn’t very well put.“
(2) Be prepared to prove that you are not a robot when accessing the website.
(3) The man serving as the Trump transition team director for presidential appointments, William Hagerty, does not seem to have any specific Afghanistan-related background. He was an economic adviser to President George H Bush and transition team director of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020