President Trump’s Afghanistan policy: Hopes and pitfalls


Following her latest trip there in July 2017, Vanda Felbab-Brown takes a closer look at U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. Felbab-Brown writes that while President Trump’s decision for the U.S. to stay in the country with a somewhat enlarged military capacity is largely correct, the president’s approach contains a critical and fundamental flaw: the downgraded importance of governance in Afghanistan.

  • President Trump’s overall decision on U.S. policy toward Afghanistan—to stay in the country with a somewhat enlarged military capacity—is to a large extent correct. However, his de-emphasis on Afghan governance and political issues is deeply misguided and could be a fatal flaw in the strategy.
  • The security situation in Afghanistan is worrisome. Amid persistent problems within the Afghan security forces, momentum has been on the Taliban’s side. The Haqqani network, Islamic State, and other actors have contributed to the deterioration in security. Most detrimentally, Afghanistan’s political system remains in dysfunction.
  • The regional environment has also palpably worsened amid endless frustrations with Pakistan as well as challenges vis-à-vis China, Russia, and Iran.
  • The principal objective of U.S. policy in Afghanistan since the 9/11 attacks has been to ensure that the country does not become a haven for terrorist groups. Other core U.S. interests in Afghanistan relate to regional stability and international credibility (i.e., honoring its commitments in Afghanistan).
  • The United States had principally three options regarding Afghanistan: full military withdrawal, limited counterterrorism engagement, and staying in the country with slightly increased military deployments and intense political engagement. The option the Trump administration chose—staying in Afghanistan with a somewhat enlarged military capacity—is the least bad option.
  • However, that strategy needs to be resolutely coupled with explicit and sustained emphasis on better governance and political processes in Afghanistan and intense U.S. political engagement with Afghan governance issues.
  • Thus, the Trump administration’s announced approach to Afghanistan is not a strategy for victory. Staying on militarily buys the United States hope that eventually the Taliban may make enough mistakes to seriously undermine its power. However, that is unlikely unless Washington starts explicitly insisting on better governance and political processes in the Afghan government.