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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Trump's Afghanistan strategy receives praise from pundits, military observers and Afghan officials alike

Unlike his predecessors George W Bush and Barack Obama, US president Donald Trump refrained from offering timetables for deployments or withdrawal when he announced the new policy late on Monday, instead granting his generals unprecedented power in managing the 16-year war

US president Donald Trump is saluted as he boards Air Force One before departing for Arizona from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, on August 22, 2017. Joshua Roberts / Reuters
US president Donald Trump is saluted as he boards Air Force One before departing for Arizona from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, on August 22, 2017. Joshua Roberts / Reuters

US pundits, military observers and Afghan government officials have praised president Donald Trump’s new strategy on Afghanistan for committing more troops and guaranteeing an open-ended counterterrorism presence in South Asia.

Unlike his predecessors George W Bush and Barack Obama, Mr Trump refrained from offering timetables for deployments or withdrawal when he announced the new policy late on Monday, instead granting his generals unprecedented power in managing the 16-year war.

Richard Haass, a former US diplomat and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, lauded the speech as falling “in the right place in Afghan policy [with an open-ended] counterterrorism effort”.

Mr Haass said the test will be in “implementation especially when it comes to Pakistan”, which Mr Trump accused of harbouring terrorism and called on to “change its behaviour immediately”.

“It is a good thing that there is no timelines and things have to be seen based on ground realities,” Javid Faisal, spokesman to Afghanistan’s chief executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah, told The National.

“It means that the US would be standing by Afghanistan for as long as we destroy the terrorists and return peace to our country.”

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But there was also condemnation of the strategy, including from former Afghan president Hamid Karzai who said it was “against peace and the national interest of Afghanistan”.

“The strategy excludes bringing peace and prosperity to Afghanistan and is focused on more war and rivalry in the region,” he said on Twitter.

Mr Trump's speech was followed by calls for targeted sanctions on Pakistan after the president accused Islamabad of harbouring terrorists and sowing instability in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Retired General John Allen, who commanded US and coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2011 until 2013, and Michael O'Hanlon, director of research and foreign policy programme at Brookings Institution, advocated more pressure on Pakistan.

“Reductions in aid, and more strikes by American or Afghan forces over the Pakistani border against the Taliban, are reasonable places to start. Targeted sanctions on those individuals in the Pakistani intelligence forces who are known to help the Taliban could also be part of the mix,” they wrote in USA Today.

However, the experts warned that the US should leave the door open for better relations with Pakistan if it changes its behaviour.

“A restoration of aid and perhaps even a free-trade zone could be offered to Pakistan if and when their co-operation improves” Mr Allen and Mr O’Hanlon wrote. This approach is also supported by senator John McCain who called for sanctions on Pakistan in June.

In a speech that was short on detail but hawkish in message and approach, Mr Trump promised the American people “a win” that would “obliterate ISIL, crush Al Qaeda, and prevent the Taliban from taking over the country”.

“My original instinct was to pull out,” the president said in an attempt to explain a reversal in course from a candidate who wanted to withdraw from the war to a president now authorising an increase in US troops.

While Mr Trump did not give any specifics on US troop numbers, the Washington Post reported he will be adding about 4,000 to the 8,400 already deployed there. The number is consistent with what defence secretary James Mattis requested earlier in summer.

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He did, however, grant the US military more freedom in conducting the war with less oversight from Washington.

“I have already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our war fighters … micromanagement from Washington, DC does not win battles,” the president said.

In what is likely to further infuriate Pakistan, Mr Trump appealed to its historic foe, India, seeking its help in areas of development, security and aid in Afghanistan.

The president referenced his speech in Saudi Arabia last May to renew a commitment "to stripping terrorists of their territory, cutting off their funding, and exposing the false allure of their evil ideology”.

The speech earned praise from Republicans in Congress, including Mr McCain, who said it was “a step in the right direction”.

“This strategy is long overdue, and in the interim, the Taliban have made dangerous inroads. Nevertheless, I believe the president is now moving us well beyond the prior administration's failed strategy of merely postponing defeat,” he added.

Meanwhile, senator Jack Reed, a Democrat, criticised the speech for being “short on the details our troops and the American people deserve and very vague”.

The speech stood in sharp contrast to Mr Trump’s past rhetoric where he occasionally tweeted about withdrawing from Afghanistan.

In January 2013, he tweeted: “Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.”

A recent poll conducted by the Morning Consult and Politico showed that only 23 per cent of Americans believe the US is winning the war there, while 38 per cent believe the US is losing.

The same poll showed that 37 per cent of Americans support gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan.

More than 2,000 US soldiers have died in Afghanistan, and the civilian death toll has well surpassed the 31,000 figure, according to Brown University.

Mr Trump also came under criticism from Democratic senators for being vague on the political path to end the war, despite his mention of a potential settlement with “elements of the Taliban”.

Mr O’Hanlon told The National “it’s possible that some Taliban [elements] could be content to be district leaders/mayors or perhaps, in an unusual case, it could be ok to let one or two be regional governors in some of the more remote provinces”.

“Mostly I am thinking about a settlement like the FARC/Colombia deal in which there’s no ambiguity about who won, in effect,” he said.