President Donald Trump has said nothing publicly about his plans for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but last week the Taliban reached out to him.
In an open letter the group released to the news media, a spokesman called for Trump to abandon what he called a “futile” and “unwinnable” war.
President Trump barely talked about Afghanistan and Pakistan during his election campaign, even though both countries are longtime U.S. foreign policy priorities, receiving billions of dollars in aid.
At a time of increasing concern over the Afghan Taliban’s rising influence, and the growth of other militant groups including the Islamic State, foreign policy experts are divided over what the new administration will do about a conflict that has now become the responsibility of a third American president.
Leaving decisions for Trump
Outgoing President Barack Obama said his successor would determine the next U.S. move.
“As president and commander-in-chief I have made it clear that I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven to attack our nation again,” Obama said in July of last year. “Instead of going down to 5,500 troops by the end of this year , the United States will maintain approximately 8,400 troops in Afghanistan into next year through the end of my administration.”
The president cited the “precarious situation” in Afghanistan and “Taliban threat” as a reason behind his decision.
But foreign policy experts have mixed predictions about the decisions a Trump administration may make.
“If the new administration really wants to make progress in Afghanistan, they have to do something about the Taliban and Haqqani network sanctuaries that are still inside Pakistan,” Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow of Asian Studies Center at Heritage Foundation, said.
Curtis is optimistic about continued U.S. engagement in Afghanistan.
“We can expect that the new administration will judge and form its new strategy towards Afghanistan based on the actual conditions on the ground rather than domestic political timelines which we saw the Obama administration do,” Curtis added.
Former ambassador to Afghanistan and Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs, Earl Anthony Wayne, agrees with Curtis about avoiding timelines.
“Many of us who have worked on Afghanistan and remain deeply committed to the work that has gone out there hope that we will see an enduring partnership emerge and a commitment without timelines,” Wayne said.
Trump might focus on Pakistan
Some scholars suggest the Trump administration may shift its focus towards Pakistan. During the election campaign candidate Trump said the situation in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is the region’s main security problem.
“We know that Trump hasn’t said a lot about Afghanistan during the campaign or after the election but what he said about the region makes it sound like he is primarily interested in the strategic problems related to Pakistan,” said Rebecca Zimmerman, a policy researcher at Rand Corporation.
But Thomas H. Johnson, director of the Naval Postgraduate School’s Program for Cultural and Conflict studies warns against that.
“His initial conversation with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was very strange and his eventual policies towards Pakistan will have a significant impact on his Afghan policies,” Johnson said.
Johnson added that given his statements concerning NATO, Germany and other traditional American security instruments and allies, the past polices may mean little to the new U.S. president.
Prominent Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid says, “What you have now is a much more complicated regional situation with the Taliban also getting backing from Iran. They are in talks with Russia. They have been in talks with China. You have many more regional players involved.”
Anthony Cordesman, national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies also believes Pakistan is not the only country the United States should be concerned about when it comes to dealing with Afghanistan.
He says the situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, “I think we are looking at a year which is going to be another year of very serious fighting. There is very little immediate prospect that you are going to have the kind of negotiations that would actually have a major impact or a predictable impact.”
Pakistan urged to do more
In their defense, Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders have argued that they have sacrificed in the war against terror and have paid with blood and treasure.
U.S. officials continue to assert that Pakistan could do more.
“We have seen progress. We have seen them take some steps to address these safe heavens, but clearly the problem persists and it is something, which is part of our ongoing conversation with Pakistan,” said U.S. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner.
Scott Worden, director of Center for Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace says Pakistan has to be convinced.
“I think there needs to be both carrot and sticks. There needs to be pressure on Pakistan to change some of its strategic calculations so that it supports better in the Afghan peace process, but at the same time Pakistan is not going to do that unless it sees benefits or opportunities.”