The US has finally announced its “new strategy” for Afghanistan. Some at NATO have applauded the proposals, though Trump’s lack of specifics on troops leave NATO insiders and allies still wanting more clarity.
President Trump’s announcement on Monday of his new military strategy for Afghanistan could be considered a broken campaign pledge, since he had promised in 2016 to quit the war in Afghanistan. And NATO was listening to the US president’s speech for hard numbers that he didn’t offer. But Trump’s finger-pointing at Pakistan and renewed commitment to take aggressive action against Islamic insurgents drew kudos in Kabul.
“We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities,” Trump declared. “Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”
Despite not hearing concrete plans from Trump on how he’ll ensure a victory in Afghanistan, former NATO official Mohammed Shafiq Hamdam said what the speech did convey was much more important than what was missing. Hamdam, now an Afghan analyst living in Washington, DC, said the address was so highly anticipated that many of his Afghan counterparts tuned in to hear it live at 05:30 am Kabul time.
“It was a big day for Afghanistan,” Hamdam told DW from Kabul, which he was visiting. “We have never waited for any announcement for such a long period of time, but it was worth it. The Afghans feel so happy about this decision, and they are confident that the US and NATO allies will not abandon Afghanistan.”
Hamdam said he was gratified to hear Trump call out Pakistan’s support and sanctuary for the Taliban, a source of constant angst in Kabul but something US policymakers have often shied away from highlighting.
“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. “Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people. We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting.”
Shortly after the president’s announcement, Hamdam seconded the call via Twitter for Pakistan to prove its dedication to regional and global stability.
“The strategy reflects exactly what the Afghans have urged for the last 16 years,” Hamdam said. “Afghanistan needed a regional solution, and Pakistan has been part of the problem forever. In particular since 2001, Pakistan hosted, trained, financed, equipped and politically supported Taliban and other insurgents and, gladly, this issue is clearly identified in this strategy.”
NATO will continue to wait for troop numbers
In Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also welcomed President Trump’s “conditions-based approach” to Afghanistan and the region. “NATO remains fully committed to Afghanistan and I am looking forward to discussing the way ahead with Secretary Mattis and our allies and international partners,” Stoltenberg said in a statement. “NATO allies and partners have already committed to increasing our presence in Afghanistan. NATO currently has over 12,000 troops in the country. In recent weeks, more than fifteen nations have pledged additional contributions to our Resolute Support Mission.”
The top US and NATO military commander of the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, Army General John Nicholson, was more direct, saying the strategy means now the “Taliban cannot win militarily”.
But while an optimistic reading of the “conditions-based” phrase would mean the US will provide whatever resources are necessary to reduce the terrorist threat to a negligible level, NATO military planners must continue to wait on the specific resource numbers that the US will employ.
As early as the June defense ministers’ meeting, NATO expected the Trump administration to be able to tell allies how many US troops would remain in Afghanistan, whether as part of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission or under unilateral US command. Currently, of the more than 12,000 international forces, about two-thirds are American. The president has given no public indication of whether Nicholson will get the troops needed to turn the tide against the Taliban, which now controls more than 40 percent of Afghanistan.
Despite NATO leaders’ positive response to Trump’s announcement, leading Afghan journalist and commentator Bilal Sarwary feels the lack of direction for the military alliance just can’t be overlooked. “The situation on the ground is getting worse, and there was little appreciation by Trump of what’s actually happening on the ground,” Sarwary told DW from Kabul. “Similarly, I think the big challenge now is that, with the Taliban being so powerful in terms of enveloping major cities and launching attacks, being on the offensive, what sort of US involvement are we talking about? Will troops and advisers and special forces go to brigade level?”
Germany, NATO allies still awaiting US lead
NATO allies typically wait to see what the Americans are doing before making their own commitments. While European allies made promises of troop numbers at a “force generation conference” in June, nothing will be finalized until US contributions are clear.
Trump asserted in his speech that his plan, once fleshed out, would find backing in Europe. “We will ask our NATO allies and global partners to support our new strategy, with additional troop and funding increases in line with our own,” he said. “We are confident they will.”
But NATO specialist Bruno Lete of the German Marshall Fund is skeptical there will be such enthusiasm. “Nearly a thousand European soldiers have died in Afghanistan to date,” Lete pointed out. “Europe sees little result and a country with an uncertain future. Hence, neither politicians or the public opinion in Europe feel much appetite to go down the military road again.”
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has already said clearly that Germany would not look kindly on such a troop increase request.
Common ground on counterterrorism
On the contrary, Lete told DW, “there is a belief in Europe in the need to step up state-building efforts, but President Trump had little to say on this aspect in yesterday’s speech.” Lete expects common ground to be found in NATO’s increased efforts to train Afghan defense forces in counterterrorism, something he says “will certainly gain support here in Europe.”
Stoltenberg spoke with US Defense Secretary James Mattis on Sunday before the Trump speech and there are expectations there will be another such conversation in the very near future. But even without firm troop figures, NATO sources say, the fact that Trump has finally articulated a strategy that continues vigorous US military support is a step forward and a relief.