Trump and the art of deal in Afghanistan

AFP

NEW YORK: The US President Donald Trump is faced with the task of making a decision on how to make Afghanistan great again using his skills from his book The Art of Deal. 

After weeks of wrangling inside his national security cabinet, top officials have finally agreed on the broad outlines of a strategy to prosecute America’s longest war.

According to administration officials familiar with the deliberations of the cabinet’s principals committee, the proposed Afghanistan strategy would tie the US to the success of President Ashraf Ghani’s ambitious plan to build an inclusive government and regain territory from the Taliban.

The new strategy, according to these officials, is not cheap.

There would be a baseline of at least $23 billion a year to support a variety of initiatives in Afghanistan, not only subsidizing Afghan police and military forces but also funding anti-corruption programmes and other priorities.

If that sounds expensive, bear in mind the untold costs if the US instead failed to support Afghanistan’s recovery and the country became a safe haven for terrorists, like it was before 9/11.

Most important, the strategy would jettison former president Barack Obama’s approach of setting arbitrary deadlines for the withdrawal of US forces and instead would link the participation of US troops inside the country to meeting clear conditions on the battlefield, such as winning back territory from the Taliban and denying safe haven to Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other bad actors, according to these officials.

If all this sounds familiar, it should. The Obama administration faced a similar choice in 2009.

Some voices in his administration, such as vice-president Joe Biden, favoured a plan that focused on counterterrorism, striking terrorist leaders, but not rebuilding a discredited Central government.

A similar dynamic has played out inside the Trump national security cabinet. Throughout the deliberations, some officials raised concerns that the plan would be throwing good money after bad, according to the US officials.

This worry is not without basis. The US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction wrote in January that: “Afghanistan suffers from limited institutional capacity to conduct basic governmental functions, and from widespread and systemic corruption that consistently places it near the bottom of international rankings for public perception of corruption.”

Another fear raised at Friday’s principals committee meeting was that the strategy would be committing the US to a role in Afghanistan for the next several years, according to administration officials familiar with the deliberations.

National security adviser, general H.R. McMaster, argues, according to sources, that Trump should not make the same mistake Obama made by exiting Iraq too soon and allowing the Islamic State room to regenerate and force another US intervention later.

In the case of Afghanistan, there is also a fear that leaving the country altogether would allow Pakistan to exert control, raising the prospects of a new conflict with India.

A strategy paper reflecting the consensus of the meeting on Friday is now being worked over by regional experts at the policy coordination committee and is expected to be sent to the president’s desk as early as this week.

In his first 100 days, Trump has largely kept his word on trusting military leaders and not micromanaging war planning from the White House as Obama did.