It’s time for Trump to explain what will happen in Afghanistan
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Since his surprise victory on Nov. 8, President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpEsper sidesteps question on whether he aligns more with Mattis or Trump Warren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA MORE has spent time criticizing a Vanity Fair review of his newest restaurant and lamenting the cast of Hamilton for being “rude” to his vice president, while saying little about his plan for the Afghan war.

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Meanwhile, Afghanistan continues to spiral into chaos, with Afghan civilians bearing the brunt of the violence.

 

When President Obama leaves office on Jan. 20, the U.S. will have roughly 9,800 troops in the country, passing America’s longest war to the Trump administration. This has left many observers, Afghan officials and regional leaders left to wonder what Trump will do.

At a time when Afghanistan is arguably in its most precarious position since 2001 — the Taliban now controls more territory than at any point since the beginning of the war and 20 of the 98 groups classified as terrorist organizations by the U.S. Department of State now operate in the country — the international community has been left in suspense to wait and see. 

Hopeful voices within the Afghan government believe that Trump will not abandon Afghanistan. Speaking at a December Heritage Foundation conference, Afghan Ambassador to the U.S. Hamdullah Mohib noted, “The rationale for US involvement in Afghanistan remains as urgent today as it was on September 11,” adding, “Nothing I’ve heard suggests that Trump won’t continue that policy.”

Elsewhere, Afghans have expressed optimism that Afghan-born Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, is expected to play a role as a foreign policy adviser in the Trump administration.

Khalilzad has been a major critic of both Pakistan and U.S. policy toward Islamabad, which allegedly funds the Afghan Taliban as a bulwark against Indian interests in Afghanistan. In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee this July, the former U.S. envoy argued, “The Taliban’s resilience can be attributed above all to the strategic decision of the Pakistani military and intelligence services to provide sanctuary and support to these groups.” Will Trump take on Pakistan? 

In January 2012, Trump tweeted about his views on Pakistan: “Get it straight: Pakistan is not our friend. We’ve given them billions and billions of dollars, and what did we get? Betrayal and disrespect—and much worse. #TimeToGetTough.” Many Afghan and U.S. policy officials who agree with Khalizad’s views on Pakistan’s pernicious influence in Afghanistan were hopeful that Trump would take a touch stance with Islamabad. Yet, shortly after his election, a phone call between the president-elect and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif suggested the potential for a different posture toward Islamabad, with Trump calling Sharif a “fantastic guy” and praising Pakistan and its people. 

With the U.S. essentially in a holding pattern the last several months, Russia and China have stepped into the void, looking to shape the future of Afghanistan to their interests. Late in 2016, Russian, Chinese and Pakistani officials met in Moscow to discuss the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. The Moscow meeting focused on working with the Taliban against the Islamic State, with a statement calling for a “flexible approach to delisting Afghan individuals [namely, Taliban figures] from the UN sanctions list” to foster a peaceful dialogue.

The Moscow meeting follows a pattern of burgeoning Russian involvement in Afghanistan. Indeed, there have been reports of contact between Moscow and the Taliban in recent months. According to some analysts, Russia believes that U.S. policies in Afghanistan have failed and now plans to step in and play a larger role.

“Russia may have been chased out of Afghanistan several decades ago, but now it appears keen to re-enter the scene in a big way,” Michael Kugelman, Asia program deputy director at the Woodrow Wilson Center, recently averred. Chief among Moscow’s concerns are the potential of a safe haven for the Islamic State in Afghanistan, in close proximity to Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in Central Asia.

Trump’s isolationist rhetoric during the campaign has stoked fears that he will completely withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, which would almost certainly result in the collapse of the Afghan government.

According to Thomas Ruttig, the co-founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, Washington is “is by far the largest spender on the Afghan armed forces and government. Without U.S. financial support, it is difficult to imagine the state, in its current form, surviving.” In a 2012 YouTube address on Afghanistan, Trump declared, “Money should be spent on our country, we should rebuild our country.” He went on to say that the U.S. should get out Afghanistan, where “We’ve wasted billions of billions of dollars.”

If Trump decides that Afghanistan is not a priority, it would further risk the limited gains made in the last 15 years. Instability in Afghanistan is far from a U.S. or regional problem. Afghans fleeing the violence in their country make up the second largest group of refugees in Europe, with an 83 percent increase in 2016. Moreover, the chaos in Afghanistan threatens to further spill over into the troubling Pakistan-India dyad.

Most analysts believe that in the short term Trump will maintain the current U.S. force posture to preserve stability and contain Pakistan. In effect, Trump will continue Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan. The problem with the current course, aimed at the creation of a massive security force to stabilize the country, is that after 15 years, Kabul has neither the competent bureaucracies nor robust civil society to support and check that force. 

It’s far past time for the Trump administration to seriously grapple with the Afghan war and provide a plan and an exit strategy. As Russia and other actors step into the void, American influence — in a country where the U.S. has spent more aid money than on the Marshall Plan and 2,300 American lives have been lost — could completely wane. While a political settlement is the only solution to the Afghan conflict, the potential for a deal between the Taliban and the Russian-Chinese-Pakistani axis could lead to a baleful regression for Afghans in human and women’s rights, education, healthcare and more. 

The U.S. has a moral responsibility to remain engaged in Afghanistan, and ensure that such gains are not reversed. Unfortunately, it’s unclear if President-elect Trump believes this, or if he even cares.

 

Adam Gallagher is a writer and analyst focusing on U.S. foreign policy. He is a senior writer for Tropics of Meta and has his work has appeared in The American Prospect, The Huffington Post, The National Interest, The Diplomat, International Policy Digest, Mondoweiss and for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among other outlets. He has been an officially accredited election observer in Tunisia (2014) and Myanmar (2015). Follow him on Twitter @aegallagher10.


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