Trump's decisive moment in Afghanistan

2019 might not have gotten off to a rollicking start for President 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 and his aides. With a full plate beyond the government shutdown — from the Middle East to the U.S.-China standoff, and from Central Africa to Ukraine — Trump is unlikely to tick all of the boxes this year. There’s too much to navigate. But that can’t be an excuse for not delivering where and when it perhaps matters most: Afghanistan.

Afghanistan remained the deadliest country in 2018, with more than 40,000 fatalities. The U.S. Afghanistan policy is going to be critical in 2019. The war is fast approaching its manageable threshold and may blow out of proportion sooner than many analysts suggest.

Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceUS military satellites are vulnerable to hacking — but Trump's 'Space Force' could help fix that Jewish group plans DC protest to occupy ICE detention centers Trump to end asylum protections for most Central American migrants at US-Mexico border MORE reiterated in a recent TV interview that a U.S. pullout — of some degree — from Afghanistan is in the cards.

ADVERTISEMENT

The actual number of troops to be pulled out is irrelevant. The mere announcement defied logic.

The Taliban’s primary demand has been for the U.S. forces to leave the country. Even if the United States pulls only a negligible number of troops out of the country, the Taliban would consider it a victory — and a significant one too.

A pullout should’ve been negotiated — before it was announced — in order to extract some concessions from the Taliban. After all, it’s been one of their most-cherished demands. Instead, the Trump administration may have upended the notion that there’s no such thing as a free meal.

The current situation in Afghanistan suggests that Trump couldn’t get it right in Afghanistan in 2018. Whether he’ll be able to right the wrongs in 2019 all depends on what policy he chooses.

Conventional military strikes definitely are not the answer. I’ve explained before why conventional warfare patterns haven’t worked and why they are unlikely to get the job done. Afghanistan is an insurgency-hit area where pick-and-choose strikes coupled with various forms of psychological operations are needed. The problem is that the presence of Islamic State Khorasan Province (Islamic State’s Afghanistan franchise) has made things complicated.

ADVERTISEMENT

You can’t fight the Taliban and the ISKP with the same military tactics. The Taliban belong to the area; whereas, the Islamic State fighters would relocate if they were to receive heavy pounding similar to what the group experienced in Levant.

The devil, of course, lies in the details.

Whether Trump likes it or not, he will have to — somehow — take some of the regional actors on board. Whether it’d be Iran, Pakistan, Russia or China, the United States may need to negotiate some sort of settlement with any or all of these countries. Surely, there are some fine negotiators out there who could help the Trump administration solve the Afghanistan imbroglio — or at least put the United States in a winning position.

One thing’s for sure: What 2019 brings in terms of national security rests in Trump’s own hands.

Shazar Shafqat is a counterterrorism and security analyst who teaches at National Defence University in Islamabad, Pakistan. His research focuses on South Asian security, Middle East politics and security issues, counterterrorism strategies, and military-related affairs. His commentary has been published by World Policy Journal, Asia Times, RealClearDefense, and The Defense Post, the Middle East Eye, Middle East Monitor and others. You may reach him at shazar.shafqat786@gmail.com