The new battle over the longest war

What can Afghans expect from the new US president?

The new battle over the longest war
If Hillary Clinton had won the race for the White House, the world would now have a good sense of what her foreign policy would look like. With Donald Trump coming into office, however, nothing is certain. With his thinking on foreign policy largely unknown, much of what Trump does will depend on who he appoints to key positions, as secretaries of defence and state, to the top jobs in the National Security Council, the CIA and others. The influential blog, Politico, warns, however, that his “divisive campaign may make it difficult for him to attract top talent, especially since so many politicians and wonks openly derided the president-elect over the past year.” This might result in low-quality politics.

Afghanistan—where the US is fighting its longest war ever—barely featured in the 2016 election campaign. Associated Press saw the reason why this happened in the “tough choices” the new president will have to make early in the term, “including whether to increase or reduce US troops levels”. He will also have to make up his mind about whether the Afghanistan challenges are military in the first place. And if it came up, it was in a strange way. Trump campaign spokeswoman Katrina Pierson demonstrated at least bad memory, if not a lack of knowledge, when she claimed on CNN in October that “Barack Obama went into Afghanistan.”

There is a compilation of ‘positions’ of the Trump-Pence campaign titled “Foreign Policy and Defeating ISIS” in bullet-point form on its website. The title indicates that the war against the Islamic State (IS, ISIS or Daesh) is Trump’s priority, apparently equal to all other foreign policy issues. Although Daesh’s Afghan-Pakistani chapter, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, is only a sideshow, it did galvanise Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama into signing off on an increasing number of airstrikes against the group. Nevertheless, in Afghanistan, the outgoing president’s policies have encompassed far more than just addressing the Daesh threat.
Trump's isolationist leanings might have repercussions for Afghanistan (and Pakistan). He has announced that he has the ambition to "end the current strategy of nation-building and regime change". He has indicated that he sees a lot of the US spending in Afghanistan as futile

Not so Trump. He has repeatedly said that the US military under his presidency would “quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS”. However, he was speaking more about the Middle East here, rather than Afghanistan. The country, again, does not feature in his foreign policy positions.

To learn what he precisely might think about Afghanistan, one has to go back to a number of tweets he has sent out over the past years and which have been re-upped on social media recently. One of them reads as follows: “Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis [sic] we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.” And another one: “It is time to get out of Afghanistan. We are building roads and schools for people that hate us. It is not in our national interests.” In a live interview on CNN in October 2015, he stated that the US “made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place” only to claim later that he had “never said we made a mistake going into Afghanistan”. In the same interview, he shed a bit more light on his thinking which might be more about Pakistan than Afghanistan: “Afghanistan is next to Pakistan, it’s an entry in. You have to be careful with the nuclear weapons. It’s all about the nuclear weapons. (…) without the nukes, it’s a whole different ballgame.”

Trump’s isolationist leanings, which surfaced in comments about other areas of the world, including putting into question his resolve even to come to the rescue of Eastern European NATO partners, might also have repercussions for Afghanistan (and Pakistan, for that matter). So he has announced that he has the ambition to “end the current strategy of nation-building and regime change”. He has also indicated that he sees a lot of the US spending in Afghanistan as futile. Whatever one might think of this—and it can be rightly criticised for waste and its contribution to systemic corruption in the country—without US financial support, it is difficult to imagine the Afghan government surviving in its current form.

On torture and the fate of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay where there are five remaining Afghan inmates, Trump has also taken extreme positions. Unlike Obama, he wants to keep Guantanamo open and has even talked about adding some more detainees, including US supporters of ISIS. He has praised the use of torture and finds waterboarding, eventually outlawed by President Bush in 2006 as potentially illegal and ineffective, “not tough enough”. Even if it did not work, he said he would authorize it because “they deserve it anyway for what they do to us”. But his hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric undercuts the seriousness of combating Islamist radicalism by alienating partners in the Islamic world.

Afghanistan might lose both military support and financial transfers. Given what Trump has said on ‘nation-building’ and ‘ungrateful’ Afghans, it is not impossible to imagine such a withdrawal of support. A reduction in spending looks even more possible. Given that Afghanistan is more dependent on US largesse than almost any other country, what Trump finally decides as his Afghan policy will have a large influence on the country’s fate.

The author is a co-director and senior analyst of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (Kabul/Berlin)