A tumultuous Afghanistan policy


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U.S. President Donald Trump campaigned for office in 2016 on the promise to end U.S. engagement in Afghanistan and bring the troops home. However, since assuming office in 2017 his administration has vacillated, leaving the Afghan government, its neighbouring countries, and indeed most of the world, wondering whether the current American policy towards Afghanistan will remain in place, and if so, what impact it will have longer term on the country and the region.

In the spring of 2019,U.S. policy towards Afghanistan, where America and its allies have been fighting a war against Islamic terrorists for nearly 18 years, was focused on enabling the U.S. to withdraw its troops as quickly as possible. In the latest iteration of America’s policy, U.S. troops will be withdrawn upon a ‘peace deal’ with the Taliban, a deal that President Trump’s envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was trying to negotiate.

The emerging peace framework being negotiated with the Taliban is in fact an attempt to find a face-saving exit strategy from Afghanistan. The U.S. administration is trying to find cover for withdrawal of U.S. troops before the campaign for the 2020 presidential elections gets into high gear. This process has been likened to U.S. efforts to withdraw from Vietnam in the mid-1970s. Like during the Paris peace talks on Vietnam, in the Trump administration’s haste to find cover for exit from Afghanistan, they have reversed what has been U.S. policy since the Taliban defeat in 2001: that any peace negotiations with the Taliban would have to be done with the government of Afghanistan. Instead, the Afghan government has been completely relegated to the sidelines while Ambassador Khalilzad conducts shuttle diplomacy with the Taliban and governments in the region. Moreover, the Taliban has been meeting with all government representatives and powerful Afghan individuals willing to see it, including former Afghan president Karzai, but sees little reason to give in on their position that they will not meet the Afghan government which they regard as a U.S. puppet.

In their rush to find a peace agreement in early 2019, the U.S. has also done a 180 degree policy turn from their 2017 policy by again increasingly relying on the Pakistan government – a government which President Trump and Ambassador Khalilzad had accused of ‘lies and deceit’ and of providing safe havens for terrorists. This tough on Pakistan policy in early 2018 had also led the U.S. to withdraw development and military aid to Pakistan.

The 2019 soft on Pakistan policy was not the policy articulated by newly installed President Trump in August 2017 when he formally laid out his vision on the war in Afghanistan. President Trump had been advised by his senior foreign policy advisors that pulling troops out of Afghanistan quickly would amount to a propaganda victory for the Taliban and defeat for the U.S. He then announced a new Afghanistan policy which was conditions based and aimed at finding a political solution with increased help from India and a new, tougher policy towards Pakistan. He also supported an increase of nearly 4,000 U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan.


Five major pillars were laid out under this new policy. The first pillar was an ‘honourable and enduring outcome’, although no specifics on what this would constitute were spelled out. President Trump cautioned against a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan that would create a political vacuum which Islamic terrorists would soon fill. To prevent this, he announced that the second pillar shifted U.S. strategy in Afghanistan from a time-based approach to one that was based on conditions on the ground. The third pillar would integrate and marshal all instruments of American power – diplomatic, economic and military – in order to achieve success in Afghanistan. The fourth pillar set Afghanistan in the regional context and announced a change in U.S. strategy towards Pakistan, which Trump highlighted had received ‘billions and billions’ of U.S. funding despite harbouring terrorists who targeted U.S. troops. Trump stated that such actions would no longer be tolerated and asked Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to peace. The fifth and final pillar sought to develop America’s relationship with India, encouraging India to step up its economic and development engagement in Afghanistan.

Barely a year and a half later, in December 2018, reports circulated in Washington that the president was changing course on his Afghanistan policy yet again. President Trump, it was said, wanted to pull all U.S. forces out of Syria and halve the number of troops in Afghanistan to 7,000.This despite conditions on the ground where a resurgent Taliban held more territory than at any time since 2001. After President Trump’s announcement of this changed strategy both Defence Secretary Mattis and special envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State Brett McGurk resigned. Moreover, in early February the U.S. Senate approved on a broad bipartisan basis a non-binding amendment by Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell that stated that the Islamic State group and al-Qaida still pose threats to the U.S. from Syria and Afghanistan. McConnell’s amendment called on President Trump to not precipitously withdraw American troops as this would only enable terrorist groups to regroup. In an acknowledgment of the mounting resistance to his changed Afghanistan policy within his own party, President Trump watered down his orders, stating in his February 2019 State of the Union address that the U.S. would only reduce troops in Afghanistan when progress was made in peace negotiations to reach a political settlement with the Taliban.


At the midway point in President Trump’s tenure, what has emerged from these vacillations are five major themes. The first theme and main focus of President’s Trump’s Afghanistan policy is to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. While leaving Afghanistan has always been an American objective, the conditions which would lead the U.S. to declare mission accomplished have changed. President Trump’s initial policy to allow conditions in Afghanistan to determine American withdrawal provided needed support to the Afghan government in fighting the Taliban. It also sent a message to the Taliban and its funders that the U.S. was committed to using continued military engagement in Afghanistan, as well as diplomatic and economic pressure on enablers of the Taliban, to weaken the Taliban’s negotiating position. Yet, as is increasingly becoming clear, President Trump, with an eye to his 2020 re-election campaign, is backing away from his 2017 Afghanistan strategy. His main focus in Afghanistan is now to negotiate a face-saving peace deal, ideally before the Afghan presidential elections scheduled in July 2019, and definitely before the November 2020 U.S. presidential elections.


This focus on quickly negotiating a paper peace with the Taliban has grave consequences, foremost for Afghanistan and the social, political and economic achievements made there over the past 18 years, but also for the entire South Asia region. By going back to a strategy of time based withdrawal, rather than one based on conditions on the ground, the U.S. has signalled that it is no longer committed to strategic success in Afghanistan. It also means that the U.S. is negotiating from a position of weakness. With the U.S. having signalled that it wants out soon and having essentially agreed to the Taliban’s position that the Afghan government will not be included in peace negotiations, the Taliban have little incentive to compromise. They have therefore pressed their advantage and further demoralized the Afghan military by deepening their fight against the Afghan government through a harsh winter. After 18 years of insisting that the representative government of Afghanistan was the only legitimate negotiating partner in peace talks with the Taliban, the U.S. acquiescence to the Taliban position has undermined the Afghan government.

The current American policy and its impact on Afghanistan and the region is reminiscent of the American withdrawal from Vietnam, but also of Afghanistan in the late 1980s when the Soviet Union was hemorrhaging money and soldiers, leading them to sign the Geneva Accords that set out the Soviet withdrawal. The Geneva Accords were not a real peace agreement, since one of the main warring parties, the Afghan resistance or Mujahideen, were not party to the negotiations, nor signatories of the accord and refused to accept the agreement. Without a peace agreement that all warring parties recognized as legitimate, Afghanistan quickly descended into a deeper civil war and eventually the reign of the Taliban.


Similarly, Afghan officials, who are currently outwardly putting on a brave face, will privately tell you that a repeat of the disastrous early 1990s, with a deepening civil war, is a very likely scenario in Afghanistan after a U.S. negotiated paper peace. Despite American and Taliban assurances to the contrary, Afghans have no delusions that a return of the Taliban will dismantle the democratic political structure of Afghanistan and usher in a new dark era of discrimination and regional insecurity. This is borne out by the fact that two-thirds of respondents to a national survey in 2018 by The Asia Foundation stated that the Taliban was the main source of insecurity in their area and that 80 per cent had ‘no sympathy’ for the Taliban.1 Afghans are aware that the consequences of a likely return of the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban will be grave not only for general security, but also for the human rights of all Afghans, including women and minorities.

The return of the Taliban, enabled by an American ‘peace deal’, will also impact regional if not global security, since the Taliban’s enduring alliance with militants such as the global al-Qaeda terrorist organization will very likely rejuvenate similar Islamist groups throughout the region and could again pose a threat to the U.S. In South Asia, the consequences will be largest for Pakistan, which the U.S. and other countries have repeatedly accused of maintaining links and possibly providing funding and training the Taliban. At the beginning of 2019, Pakistan was in dire financial need and dependent on accessing as much as US$ 12 billion in bailout funds from Saudi Arabia and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) where the U.S. has a veto power. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have used this leverage to pressure Pakistan into using its links with the Taliban to produce a peace agreement. A Taliban controlled Afghanistan would likely provide Pakistan with greater leverage within Afghanistan if not a proxy government in Kabul, but this is unlikely to mean greater security for the region. In India and other South Asian countries many policy analysts worry that the return of the Taliban will lead to further radicalization in Pakistan with spillovers in their countries. A return of the Taliban enabled by a paper peace will have an unequivocally negative impact in the region for which South Asian capitals are starting to plan.


While the main focus of the Trump administration’s Afghanistan policy is to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban, a second aspect of its policy is an enhanced role for key South Asian countries as part of a solution in Afghanistan. As echoed in other contributions to this issue, President Trump’s foreign policy has devoted significant attention to South Asia, due in part to the focus on getting American troops out of Afghanistan. Among South Asian countries, India and Pakistan have been singled out as important for the role they could potentially play in bringing about an Afghan peace deal. Ironically, in this process the Afghan government and the earlier American focus on an ‘Afghan-owned and Afghan-led’ peace process have been relegated to secondary importance.

India, with US$ 3 billion in foreign aid committed to Afghanistan, is already the largest regional donor, and has been asked to do more in fighting the Taliban and delivering peace in Afghanistan. While previous U.S. policy on India’s role in Afghanistan was to not encourage military assistance for fear of antagonizing Pakistan, India is now being asked to do more. Though specifics on the enhanced role for India envisioned by the U.S. administration remain unclear, India has already stepped up its development assistance to Afghanistan but has ruled out military support, except possibly in the form of a peacekeeping arrangement should it be asked by the Afghan government to do so. India is also preparing for an Afghanistan after the withdrawal of American troops by building up its links into the country through the Iranian Chabahar port and through the Central Asian states.


Pakistan is the other South Asian country which has been asked by the Trump administration to do more to deliver peace in Afghanistan. While Pakistan was praised by Trump in his 2017 South Asia policy for the sacrifices it had made in fighting terrorism, the president also highlighted Pakistan’s duplicitous role in Afghanistan, stating that Pakistan had to do more to demonstrate its commitment to peace. Yet by early 2019,a recognition that Pakistan is the key country to peace in Afghanistan led President Trump to abandon his tougher line and take a more conciliatory tone in the hopes that Pakistan would help bring about a quick peace deal. In return for its mediating role, the U.S. has enabled Pakistan’s access to IMF funds it desperately needs for its economy. The U.S. is also no longer placing an emphasis on Taliban safe havens within Pakistan, nor highlighting the active role of the Pakistani military and intelligence in its foreign policy towards Afghanistan. Pakistan may turn out to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the revised American policy in Afghanistan, since the withdrawal of U.S. troops could enable it to again install a Pakistan-friendly government in Kabul and gain an upper hand in its regional proxy war with India.


A third major theme of President Trump’s recently revised Afghanistan policy is that there is little recognition of and engagement with other regional and global actors in working towards a peaceful solution. It is not only in the interest of regional countries to have a peaceful, stable regime in Afghanistan, but also of global powers such as Russia and China. Yet the Trump administration’s lack of engagement with them in jointly finding a solution has led many of these actors to look into other ways of securing their strategic interests. Russia wants to prevent threats from Islamic extremist groups in Afghanistan from spilling over into Central Asia, as well as curb opium and heroin drug traffic. Russian strategic interests in Afghanistan are also driven by a desire for geopolitical influence vis-à-vis the U.S. Over the past few years, Russia has hosted a series of regional conferences to explore peace prospects in Afghanistan, more recently including meetings with the Taliban.

The other main regional actor with legitimate strategic interests in Afghanistan and the wherewithal to influence political stability is China. China is concerned that the progressive deterioration of Afghanistan’s security situation will spill over and exacerbate Islamic extremism in Xianjiang, China’s western province bordering Afghanistan. China has also invested over US$ 60 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which it wants to safeguard. Chinese investments also provide it leverage over Pakistan’s activities in Afghanistan while China’s interests in Afghanistan increasingly mirror those of India, Iran, Afghanistan’s central Asian neighbours, and indeed the U.S. – none of whom want to see a resurgent Taliban back in power in Afghanistan. However, the Trump administration is not leveraging its common interests with China and other countries to find a durable peace in Afghanistan.


A fourth theme of Trump’s Afghanistan policy is that it is not marshalling the ‘all hands on deck’ coordinated policy needed for a successful negotiation with the Taliban. The appointment of Ambassador Khalilzad as President Trump’s personal envoy for implementing the new Afghanistan strategy has signalled the president’s resolve to bring about a peace agreement before 2020. Yet Khalilzad is hampered in his mission by continuing senior level vacancies in the American foreign service, resistance among the high echelons of U.S. military to the new Afghanistan policy, and lack of domestic political support even among the president’s own party for a quick pull out of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. This lack of support for the new Afghanistan policy among the U.S. foreign policy establishment, in addition to the failure to marshal regional and global powers and institutions into a coordinated effort, decrease the chances of a successfully negotiated peace.

A fifth theme of the new Afghanistan policy is that the Taliban’s legitimacy, an important soft power aspect with the potential to undermine the Taliban’s negotiating position, has actually been buttressed. In their rush to produce a quick peace agreement, the Trump administration has sidelined the Afghan government and de facto increased the legitimacy of the Taliban by acquiescing to their refusal to negotiate directly with the Afghan government. In addition, several initiatives over the past year within and outside Afghanistan which had started to undermine the Taliban’s claim to represent Afghans and Islamic law, have been undercut by direct engagement of the U.S. with the Taliban. On the domestic side, there has been a home-grown peace movement, an Afghan-government initiated Eid ceasefire during the summer of 2018, and the issuing of fat was or legal opinions against terrorism by Afghan religious leaders. In addition, international meetings of religious scholars in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia both ended in declarations stating that fighting among Muslims is strictly ‘prohibited by Allah’ and called for an end to the ‘evil’ fighting in Afghanistan.

These processes had started to erode the legitimacy claimed by the Taliban. Yet instead of building on these efforts, the new U.S. policy has ignored them. By engaging in direct talks with the Taliban, the American policy has strengthened the legitimacy and negotiating position of the Taliban.


Overall, the only take away for South Asian countries from the new American policy on Afghanistan is, unfortunately, that the Trump administration’s top priority is negotiating a peace agreement directly with the Taliban in order to have a face-saving exit strategy before the 2020 American elections. In the race to negotiate a quick peace, the historical role of spoiler that Pakistan has played in Afghanistan is being disregarded and regional and global countries with vested interests in negotiating a durable peace in Afghanistan, including the Afghan government, are being ignored. South Asian countries see the writing on the wall: as far as securing peace and their own interests in Afghanistan are concerned, they will have to look out for themselves.



1. https://asiafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/2018_Afghan-Survey_fullReport-12.4.18.pdf