When President Donald Trump announced the expansion of U.S. forces in Afghanistan on Aug. 21, it signaled a major change in America’s Afghan policies since 2014, when the U.S. announced it would end active fighting in the country. This strategy is also markedly different from Trump’s previous understanding of the Afghan War, and it is not an instinctive decision for him.
How do we interpret Trump’s Afghan policy? First, Trump takes counterterrorism extremely seriously, and increased involvement in Afghanistan is a focused reflection of his security concerns. It is obvious that he has elevated the fight against terrorism among America’s global strategies. He made defeating the Islamic State a priority as soon as he took office, unveiling the Muslim ban and other domestic measures. Now, as numerous violent forces have become active in Afghanistan, and the American military is playing a proactive role in both Iraq and Syria, it is inevitable that Trump would shift the focus of his overseas counterterrorism efforts to Afghanistan, a longstanding site for cultivation of terrorism, so as to prevent it from becoming a base camp for terrorism forces such as the Islamic State group.
In addition, the military has led the assessment of strategies in Afghanistan. When Trump ordered an evaluation of Afghanistan after becoming president, there was a great deal of internal dissent. The military advisers and the hard-liners believed that increased involvement was a must, while voices led by the Democrats advocated for staying the course or for even a total withdrawal. In the evaluation process, both Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, who have had counterterrorism experience, played a pivotal role in influencing Trump.
Trump’s domestic situation is rather grim, with endless bickering within his administration, as well as “Russiagate” and the Charlottesville, Virginia riots further sinking him into a morass, so the declaration of a new strategy for Afghanistan helps to show a strength that could shift the focus away from his internal troubles and alleviate his quandary. Currently, the Republican mainstream agrees, overall, with Trump’s position, with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. John McCain supporting him.
Looking forward, this new strategy could prevent the situation in Afghanistan from deteriorating, but it would not be able to reverse America’s fortune in the region. On the one hand, the core policies and tools in Trump’s new strategy do not differ from Obama’s for combining diplomatic, economic, and military measures. Playing up the India and Pakistan connections were key to the Obama administration’s playbook there as well, but they were shown to be ineffective in improving the Afghan situation.
On the other hand, Trump’s new strategy is essentially disguising a retreat as an advance. Trump said he would not publicize the scope of America’s military involvement or have a man-made timetable, but many internal groups in Afghanistan firmly believe in an American retreat from their country. In addition, the domestic sources of social and economic unrest in Afghanistan would not be solved in the short term, the Afghan government’s effectiveness needs improvement, and there’s also conflicting demands for regional and national interests, all of which will limit the effectiveness of Trump’s new Afghan strategy.
Trump’s strategy will undoubtedly add new variables to the situation in South Asia. Since 9/11, American strategy in Afghanistan has become a major factor in the region. This new strategy is obvious in its support of India and control of Pakistan, and not only in forcefully pressuring Pakistan to expand its antiterrorism efforts, praising the U.S.-India strategic partnership and advocating for a bigger role for India in Afghanistan and the Indo-Asia Pacific region. If anything, Trump’s new strategy is a continuation and elevation of Obama’s policy of valuing India and dismissing Pakistan.
It is foreseeable that as the situation in Afghanistan worsens, America will further pressure Pakistan. By fostering India in both the Indo-Asia Pacific region and the mid- to south-Asia region, America could make India more cocky than ever, and bring major changes to its geopolitical scene. Meanwhile, by using the Afghan situation as an excuse, with counterterrorism at the core and military security as a tool to build its South Asian strategy, Trump could bring subtle changes to the region and add more potential variables.
In Trump’s preliminary South Asia strategic planning, his conception of China is still not clear. In his speeches, Trump has not emphasized the role of other regions, countries or international society other than India and Pakistan, which is different from the Obama administration. It remains to be seen whether China and U.S. bilateral and multilateral collaboration on counterterrorism will work in Afghanistan, and in what way Trump will view China’s role.
Viewed on an even longer term basis, it will be worthwhile to closely watch the impact of Trump’s Afghan strategy on America’s global strategy. During Obama’s term, normalizing the Afghan War and America’s retreat was the foundation for restrategizing America’s global layout, making the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific possible. The degree of Trump’s increased involvement in Afghanistan, the extent to which resources will be affected, and whether the focus on counterterrorism will lead to overall strategic changes all will have an impact with respect to creating a more meaningful foothold with which to observe America’s evolution in Afghanistan.
The author is the deputy director of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.