What is Trump's new Afghan policy

Afghanistan and Iraq: Internationalized Civil Wars and Regional Alliances

by Arvid Bell

in: Caroline Fehl and Marco Fey (eds.), "America first": The foreign and security policy of the USA under President Trump, PRIF Report No. 1/2017, Frankfurt / M, pp. 39-40.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, military “pacification” failed after the interventions in 2001 and 2003, respectively. The situation in both countries is closely linked to regional problems in Central Asia and the Middle East. A negotiated political solution is difficult in Afghanistan, and all the more so in Iraq.

Although the Taliban have officially been driven from power in Afghanistan, they have massively expanded their influence in the provinces in parallel with the withdrawal of most of the NATO troops. With spectacular military operations in strategically important locations, they try to expose the Afghan security forces as overwhelmed. Without the NATO support mission, the situation of government forces would be even more precarious. Should the US government stop its financial aid, the Afghan armed forces would be on the verge of collapse. The number of civilians wounded or killed in the war climbed to a new record high in 2016.

In Iraq the situation is even more serious. With the merging of the Iraqi civil war and the insurgency movement in neighboring Syria, the situation has escalated dramatically. The current US strategy includes air strikes against the so-called Islamic State (IS), arms deliveries to government forces and Kurdish militias, and special forces. Washington has also mobilized a military alliance that also includes regional states such as Jordan and Morocco.

It has always been the goal of the Obama administration to gradually withdraw US troops and to hand over responsibility for security to the governments in Kabul and Baghdad. The advance of IS has messed up the schedule, but not this fundamental line. The White House has rejected both an abrupt withdrawal and a massive replenishment of US ground forces.

What to Expect from the Trump Administration In 2013, Trump called for US troops to be brought back from Afghanistan; they would be killed there by the Afghans being trained. In addition, you are wasting billions that you need to build America [1]. As far as Iraq is concerned, Trump blamed the Obama administration for the chaos there during the election campaign, which was not caused by the invasion (Bush) but rather by the large-scale withdrawal of troops (Obama). He announced a bomb war against ISIS [2]; suggested that Russia should give military precedence, since the Kremlin was also interested in a defeat of IS [3]; or advocated taking Iraq's oil wells [4] in order to compensate the US for the cost of its military operations.

A common thread was recognizable: Trump diagnosed the current strategies in Afghanistan and Iraq as economically unprofitable for the USA. Trump later relativized his “out of Afghanistan” demand and declared during the primary campaign: “I think we have to stay in Afghanistan for a while, because that's right next to Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons, and we have to secure that.” [5]

It is therefore likely that the Trump administration will keep the nearly 10,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan and the nearly 5,000 in Iraq. The new Defense Minister Mattis has commanded troops in both countries and is known to be interested in the regional and cultural complexities of both conflicts. Mattis has repeatedly emphasized the relevance of the US alliance system and important regional allies for the stabilization of Afghanistan and Iraq. Possibly the Trump administration will increase pressure on countries like Jordan and the United Arab Emirates to further increase their military and / or economic contributions. The decisive factor will be whether the US will draft a new political strategy to tackle the various causes of the civil wars and how it will deal with Iran, which borders Iraq and Afghanistan and plays a key role in the region.

An open question is how the new US president will react if the United States is deliberately provoked or humiliated in one of the trouble spots, for example by IS commands or Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Whether Trump's Twitter tirades are followed by hasty military actions presumably depends on whether the president is curbed by the new defense minister Mattis or incited by the new security advisor Flynn.