In his new strategy for Afghanistan released Monday, US President Donald Trump said he would put more US troops into the nation.
His predecessor Barack Obama was clear in pulling US troops out of Afghanistan, so he reduced the US presence and kept US troops away from the front line. While Trump advocated a more radical and complete exit during his campaign, now he has backtracked and ruled out a full withdrawal. His ultimate goal looks ambiguous.
There are some realistic parts to Trump’s Afghanistan strategy. But the war in Afghanistan has altered the country’s political structure and disturbed the regional landscape. It’s a daunting task to build a unity government in such a divided Afghanistan.
The Taliban, once smashed by the US army, has resurged and now controls a large part of Afghan territory. Yet the US has barely any experience of successfully reconciling ethnic groups. Soon after Trump’s speech, the Taliban responded that Afghanistan would become a “graveyard” for the US. Everything about the conflict seems to be going right back to where it was.
Washington has to figure out what it wants from Afghanistan in the future. It fought in Afghanistan in a bid to take revenge for the 9/11 attacks and overthrow the Taliban regime, which was far more resilient than expected.
Does the US want to continue its involvement in Afghanistan’s political future or want to create the conditions for the withdrawal of US troops? Will the US turn Afghanistan into a geopolitical bridgehead in Central Asia or work with China to build peace there?
The US is unable to wipe out the Taliban and doesn’t want to completely pull out of Afghanistan. It is ambivalent in dealing with Pakistan and doesn’t trust China enough. Trump’s new strategy actually aims to maintain the status quo since he has no new idea to end the stalemate, and sways between the tactics of Obama and George W Bush.
The Afghanistan situation is complicated. A huge challenge in ending the war lies in how to bring back the different forces into the political process. The US needs to enhance cooperation with China and improve ties with Pakistan to stabilize the Afghanistan situation.
China and the US share many common interests in the Afghanistan issue and both wish to see the country return to peace and stability. In fact, Afghanistan could become a bridge for the two to expand their cooperation. The US should give a constructive response to China’s concerns about a US military base in Afghanistan and support China’s Belt and Road initiative.
The US also needs to respect and consider Pakistan’s interests and difficulties, and not push the latter too hard on anti-terrorism issues. It will be stupid if the US abandons Pakistan and particularly short-sighted to get too close to India and drift away from Pakistan.
The major problem in Afghanistan is social and economic reconstruction. It’s no easy thing to bring an organization defeated by US troops back to Afghanistan’s national regime.
No single power can deal with the Afghanistan issue. The Trump administration should promote effective cooperation between international forces. But Trump’s new strategy neither emphasizes international cooperation nor provides new thinking in facilitating national conciliation. It is worrying that the new strategy ignores the reality that the Trump administration may in the end not exit the Afghanistan war.
Published in Global Times Editorial