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Opinion

Opinion: Lacking strategy, Donald Trump fights on in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is America's longest war. President Donald Trump wants to continue it. His latest address failed to specify for how long and to what end, writes Sandra Petersmann.

Only Trump's tone is new: "We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists." With that, he has distinguished himself from the verbal masquerading of many Western policymakers. Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush always cast their Afghanistan military policies in democratic and human-rights terms, a policy that always took priority in the absence of a political strategy. Now it's Trump's turn to do the same. 

More of the same

In his speech, Trump made clear that engagement in Afghanistan is in America's fundamental interests. He spoke of "big and intricate problems," which will be solved because he is a "problem solver." "In the end, we will win," he said.

Sandra Petersmann

Sandra Petersmann regularly reports from Afghanistan

He avoided defining what that actually might mean politically, saying only, "Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition. Attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing Al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge." He will need to take a very deep breath for that.

And what happens when those troops again start coming home in caskets? It was Trump himself who initially wanted to pull out because he considered this war to be too costly, both in lives lost and money spent. He backtracked. So did Obama.  

Trump gave no numbers for the planned troop increase, nor did he give a time horizon for the mission. "Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on," he said.

He added that he would relax the rules of engagement for troops on the ground: "Micromanagement from Washington, D.C., does not win battles," he said. Front-line soldiers do, "acting in real time with real authority, and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy."

That sounds like more drones, more airstrikes, more fighting. And more war and death. It sounds hardly new. Under Trump, the US is back on a war footing, which is sure to displease NATO allies.

Weeks ago they signaled support for a moderate increase in troops to train Afghan security forces - but also the desire to avoid, at all costs, the impression that NATO was again at war in Afghanistan. It is a balancing act that is hard to maintain long term.

Pakistan: The difficult ally

Verbal threats directed at Pakistan are also old hat. "We can no longer be silent about Pakistan's safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond," Trump said, mirroring similar comments made over the years by Obama, Clinton, Cheney and Rumsfeld. They have all complained about Pakistan's alleged double dealing on the Afghan battlefields. Yet real consequences were left at threats and occasional financial pressure.

The nuclear-armed state is an indispensable partner, even for supplying US troops in Afghanistan. Trump has called on Pakistan to "demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order and to peace." What does Trump do, then, when Pakistan continues to pursue its own interests? Apply sanctions? Send even more drones? Cancel military aid? Turn more towards India? That would bring China further into the fray than it currently is.

A murky impasse

It is clear that Trump has no trick up his sleeve. There is no political vision that takes the entire region into account, which has been the cardinal sin since the US-led invasion 16 years ago. Now, as then, the battlefield in Afghanistan is overcrowded.

This is not only about Pakistan, but also India, Iran, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia. Everyone is looking for allies in Afghanistan, and those alliances shift depending on who can gain what from whom. The plethora of actors destabilize each other; Afghanistan has, for around four decades, been the setting for ideological and military proxy wars.

Western intervention in 2001 encroached on a civil war that divided Afghanistan along political, social and ethnic lines - a benefit to external interests. Kabul lacks a unified government. Led by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, it is deeply divided. Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, for instance, has fled to Turkey to avoid investigations into a political opponent's alleged kidnap and rape.

Corrupt kingmakers

Regional powerbrokers, such as Governor Atta Muhammad Nur of Balkh Province in northern Afghanistan, act as kings with absolute power. They get away with that because the West supports them as supposed stabilizers. Their corruption is permitted, and they can even maintain their own militias and be a menace to their people, which increases the gap between the Kabul-based government and ordinary Afghans – a benefit to the Taliban. A culture of impunity guarantees more terror.

Trump will have to recognize that he cannot bomb his way to victory in Afghanistan. Peace is only possible through long, complicated negotiations, It might happen one day, when everyone is tired of fighting. Such is the situation today: No new strategy, just a continuation of an unwinnable war. Terror is almost always the response to a political vacuum.

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