The question of what President-elect Donald Trump has planned for Afghanistan rarely came up during his run for the presidency. As is the sometimes-custom of Trump, apart from several tweets (“Let’s get out of Afghanistan?”) and inflammatory comments (“Karzai is a crook”), it’s unclear what he wants to do in the country, despite the fact that it is the site of the longest war in U.S. history.
Since 2002, the international community has spent some $100 billion on rebuilding the country and its economy. Nearly 70 percent of Afghanistan’s annual income is from international donors. Washington itself “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,” said Thomas Ruttig, the co-founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent, non-profit think tank.
Yet the next American president has been a harsh critic of the very aid the Afghan state depends on, according to Barnett Rubin, director of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a long-time adviser on Afghanistan to both the UN and the United States. “He believes it’s wasted money,” Rubin said. In Afghanistan, Trump may have a strong argument. Despite what the United States has spent there in the name of improving security, UN figures indicate that civilian deaths have reached a new peak since the beginning of the census in 2009. Between January 1 and September 30 of this year, the UN recorded 2,562 conflict-related civilians deaths and 5,835 injuries. Meanwhile, Transparency International has repeatedly accused Afghan politicians of stealing millions of dollars of aid money. Corruption is also one of the main causes of the extreme poverty afflicting the country. Rubin said Trump would face congressional opposition if he tried to cut off all of Afghanistan’s aid. “But I think [such aid] will come into much greater question than if Hillary Clinton has been elected,” he said.
Then there’s the question of whether Trump, who has expressed skepticism of overseas military intervention, will maintain current U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama, having planned to effectively conclude the Afghanistan war during his term in office, now plans to leave more than 8,000 troops in the country into 2017, leaving to Trump the decision of what to do with them. Trump has criticized “the way [Obama] got out of Iraq” as facilitating the rise of ISIS; he also told Bill O’Reilly he was in favor of leaving U.S. troops in Afghanistan, in part, to provide a check on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal (“I hate doing it, I hate doing it so much. But, again, you have nuclear weapons in Pakistan so I would do it”).
And Pakistan presents other challenges—namely its alleged support of Afghan insurgent groups, including the Taliban. During the last decade, leading members of the Taliban lived in Pakistan. The so-called Quetta Shura, a council composed of different Taliban leaders in the Pakistani city of the same name, became symbolic of the militants’ presence in the country. The al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was also found in the city of Abbottabad, not far from a military compound. Several members of the Quetta Shura were detained by Pakistani intelligence in 2010. But even today, the Afghan government believes that Islamabad is supporting the insurgents to continue destabilizing Afghanistan.
Trump, for now, seems untroubled by any of this. He reportedly called Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif a “terrific guy” doing “amazing work,” calling into question whether he would follow through on promised harsher steps toward Pakistan.
And then there is the matter of the Taliban. Weeks before the election, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid reportedly described Trump as “non-serious” and a person that who says “anything that comes to his tongue.” After Trump’s victory, the Taliban, as it often has in the past, released a statement in which the group demanded the withdrawal of all U.S. troops in the Afghanistan.
Despite the air of unpredictability that surrounds Trump, some Afghan analysts hope that the prospects of peace with the Taliban will improve under his presidency, as the Obama administration’s numerous attempts to end the war have failed.
“During his election campaign, Trump often mentioned al-Qaeda and ISIS. He also pointed out that U.S. policy itself was responsible for the growth of these groups. However, in terms of the Taliban, he didn’t make such comments. That might be a hint that he supports a deal with them because he wants to see a political change in Afghanistan,” said Nazar Mohammad Mutmaeen, a political analyst based in Kabul. On the other hand, given how little Trump spoke about Afghanistan at all during the campaign, it may just be that he does not view the Taliban as a threat in the same way that he does these other groups.
Rubin, for one, is skeptical. “At least the Obama administration tried to make a distinction between the Taliban and al-Qaeda or ISIS,” Rubin said. In Afghanistan, ISIS is believed to have emerged primarily as a movement of disaffected former Taliban, and fighters claiming allegiance to the group have gained a foothold in the country. ISIS has also claimed responsibility for numerous attacks targeting the country’s Shia, a tactic of sectarian warfare the Taliban has not emphasized to the same degree. “It seems that Trump will throw all the groups together. They are all the very same for him,” Rubin added.
Many Afghans think that somone who might bring this change is Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and once the highest-ranking Muslim American official in the George W. Bush administration. In recent weeks, rumors surfaced that he could be up for an official role in Trump’s upcoming administration. Khalilzad, originally born in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, helped shape former President Hamid Karzai’s policy in the post-2001 era, especially the plan to empower anti-Taliban warlords and give them key roles in his government—a fateful choice. To this day, Afghan warlords fuel violence through their militias or private armies. Last July, Human Rights Watch reported that forces linked to notorious warlord, and now vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum terrorized villagers in northern Afghanistan. Some Afghans believe that Khalilzad might take serious steps against Pakistan should he join Trump’s future administration, though such moves may now be in doubt in light of Trump’s talk with Sharif.
Given some of his cabinet appointments, Trump may ultimately embrace a degree of continuity with Obama’s approach in Afghanistan. His pick for national security advisor, former lieutenant general Michael Flynn, served as a commander of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both countries, Flynn and his JSOC team became infamous for executing brutal night raids to hunt militants. In one well-known case detailed by the journalist Jeremy Scahill, in February 2010 JSOC soldiers killed seven civilians in Paktia in eastern Afghanistan during a raid. Such night raids still occur in Afghanistan, and are still considered a major source of anti-American feelings.
Flynn has since acknowledged some of the costs of prosecuting the war this way. In an interview with Al Jazeera in January, Flynn did not disagree with the argument that drone strikes “create more terrorists than they kill” and that “night raids in Afghanistan” like the ones he led “create more terrorists than they get.” Indeed, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Afghanistan suffers more drone attacks than any other country in the world. Flynn also said, “When you drop a bomb from a drone … you are gonna cause more damage than you’re gonna cause good.” He also said “there should be a different approach” to Obama’s use of drones, including investing more to fix poor social and economic conditions.
After all this time, it is clear that Obama’s hopes for Afghanistan have fallen far short of his aims. And while Trump’s foreign policy promises to be unnervingly unpredictable, perhaps his approach—or any new approach at all—is what’s desperately required.