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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Can Trump's revised strategy for Afghanistan work?

Scepticism is justified, but it must be accompanied by the acknowledgement that Mr Trump's plan is the least-worst option

For the sake of the Afghan people, we must hope Mr Trump's new strategy works.  Joshua Roberts / Reuters
For the sake of the Afghan people, we must hope Mr Trump's new strategy works. Joshua Roberts / Reuters

The war in Afghanistan began with a set of clear ambitions: to rid the country of Al Qaeda, which subjected the United States to the worst terrorist assault in its history on September 11, 2001; to uproot the Taliban, which hosted Al Qaeda’s leadership, and to create accountable institutions of governance in the country. Sixteen years later, America is still in Afghanistan. The Taliban is resurgent. Al Qaeda never went out of business. Afghanistan is now the longest war in America’s history.

This is not to say that the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 achieved nothing. Life for many Afghans is measurably better today than it was under the Taliban. But the gains fall a long way short of the goals Washington set for itself. The Afghan state is beset by corruption, intrigue and infighting, and besieged by Afghan mujahideen who are waging unrelenting battles for supremacy all over the country. Morale in the Afghan army is low; rates of desertion and attrition are high. Without the support of international partners – chiefly the United States – the government in Kabul would long ago have collapsed.

Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to pull out from Afghanistan. But Mr Trump’s thinking evolved over months of consultations with his top generals and advisers. His speech on Monday, setting out a new plan for Afghanistan, showed him at his most presidential yet. His plan will bolster America’s existing force of 8,400 personnel in Afghanistan and grant autonomy to the military to make decisions without dictation from Washington. It envisages a greater role for India in Afghanistan’s reconstruction while seeking to compel Pakistan, which Mr Trump accused of providing “safe havens for terrorist organisations”, to reverse course. Crucially, it doesn’t rule out a future power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The last element is puzzling. Is Mr Trump’s ambition to defeat the Taliban or to coerce it into what might pass for “responsible” behaviour? This ambiguity is a continuation of his predecessor Barack Obama’s muddled policy, not a departure from it.

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History cautions us to restrain our expectations when it comes to Afghanistan. Mr Trump is the third president to announce a grand plan for victory. Will it be a case of third time lucky, or is the war destined to end in a stalemate or, worse yet, in ignominious retreat? A degree of scepticism is justified. Yet such scepticism must be accompanied by the acknowledgement that Mr Trump’s proposal is the least-worst option.

America’s hasty withdrawal from Iraq, as the president rightly pointed out Monday, paved the way for ISIL to seize control. A vacuum in Afghanistan would in all probability have similarly baleful consequences. Mr Trump ended his speech by paying tribute to the “people of Afghanistan and their courageous armed forces”, who continue to bear the “heaviest burden” of this unending war. For their sake, we must hope that Mr Trump’s new strategy works.

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