Trump's Afghanistan plan has mixed implications, experts say

Foreign policy analysts weigh in on Trump's new plan.

August 22, 2017, 7:02 PM

— -- Foreign policy experts are mixed on how much of President Donald Trump’s speech Monday night on his administration’s Afghanistan policy is new, and how effective it will be in creating stability in the South Asian country.

Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown told ABC News that Trump’s speech “contained many good elements, and also an absolutely fundamental flaw.” His declaration that “we are not nation-building again, we are killing terrorists,” will have an impact on the Afghan government’s accountability, or lack thereof, she said.

“That will be very much read that the U.S. is no longer focused on corruption, power abuses, criminal behavior by government officials and Afghan politicians,” she said, noting that “bad governance in Afghanistan is what gives the Taliban staying power.”

Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations says that the direct focus on “killing terrorists” can be viewed as a “pivot to a sort of counterterrorism approach.”

Ayres said that both Trump’s speech last night and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent public comments suggest that part of the motivation in focusing on terrorism is “to create conditions for the Taliban to come to the table and have peace talks.” Administration staffing, however, could present problems moving forward with that plan.

“Right now we have a State Department which has an unprecedented number of unfilled senior positions,” she said. “If diplomacy is your secret to ending the longest U.S. war in history... we need to have our State Department firing on all cylinders.”

Trump was undoubtedly critical of Pakistan Monday night, saying that “we have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change. And that will change immediately.”

Ayres is unconvinced that this is a “fundamental pillar of our new strategy,” as Trump said it was during his speech.

“The president billed this as a new strategy but I actually think that it has much more in keeping with previous strategies,” Ayres said.

Ayres pointed out how Ash Carter, the secretary of defense during the final years of the Obama administration, refused to certify Pakistan as having sufficiently made efforts to thwart the Haqqani network, a known-terror organization that Felbab-Brown explained has safe havens and support in Pakistan, and is the principal anti-government military actor in Afghanistan.

As a result, in 2016, Pakistan did not receive more than $300 million in funds that it’s handed annually for their help with U.S. efforts to combat terrorism. A similar decision by the Pentagon regarding $50 million in funds being withheld from Pakistan was announced this summer under the leadership of current Secretary of State James Mattis.

Felbab-Brown said that in regards to Trump’s speech, it’s “unlikely that Pakistan will adopt such a dramatic change. I think Pakistan might scale down support, but it’s not going to fundamentally abandon its support for militant groups.

“Nor is asking for greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan going to induce Pakistan to give up on its support for terrorist groups. In fact, it could easily make Pakistan even more paranoid and more clinging to the terrorist groups,” she said.

Felbab-Brown is referring to Trump’s mention Monday night of his wishes to “further develop” U.S.-India relations.

He said that “we appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.”

Ayres says that it was “a new approach” to highlight the positive role India has played, and she points out the “close relationship” that India and Afghanistan have.

“I was surprised to hear about India in the Trump plan, because it really elevates India in a way that it hasn’t been elevated in a U.S. conversation,” she said.

All told, Felbab-Brown thinks that the president was overselling the plan, which took longer for his team to reach than initially expected.

“The president says this is a strategy for victory -- I do not think this is a strategy for victory. I think it’s a strategy of avoiding catastrophe, but essentially it’s a strategy of buying us hope,” Felbab-Brown said.

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