August 22, 2017
US President Donald J. Trump’s approach to Afghanistan—marked by an indefinite US troop presence—sends a clear signal of the United States’ commitment to ending the war in that country, said James B. Cunningham, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“This is the first time that it is clear that the United States and its international partners are in this for the long term, and that we are going to make our future decisions based on events that are happening on the ground and in the region and not against a timeline,” he said.

Trump’s August 21 speech, in which he outlined his policy on Afghanistan, also sends an important message to Pakistan, which, by providing safe haven to terrorist groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, has been an impediment to ending the nearly sixteen-year-old war in Afghanistan, said Cunningham.

“One of the things that has impeded the effort to get Pakistan to act has been Pakistan’s own doubts about what the American goals and commitments are in the longer term. Now that the president has spoken to that that should be the basis for approaching them with a different set of choices,” he said.

The Trump administration must launch a “multilateral effort to get Pakistan into a better place in terms of its actions, not just its rhetoric, and then find a way to push the Taliban into negotiations,” he added.

Past US administrations have tried, with limited success, to get Pakistan to change its behavior. So, what can the Trump administration do to change Pakistan’s calculus?

“This is a question that has bedeviled us and our international partners for quite some time,” said Cunningham, who served as the US ambassador to Afghanistan in the administration of former US President Barack Obama. However, he added, Trump’s policy has created an opportunity to offer Pakistan incentives as well as disincentives to change its behavior.

“We should outline for them what their choices might be in terms of benefits to Pakistan as well as problems that they can anticipate in the future if they continue their hedging behavior and acquiescence to the activities of the Taliban and the Haqqani Network on their territory,” said Cunningham. “That is a very hard thing to do, but it is something that we need to wrap our heads around, and I hope that what the president said last night signals that that is happening.”

Trump has given the Pentagon the authority to ramp up troop levels in Afghanistan, but in his speech on August 21 said he will “not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.”

“Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on. America's enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out,” Trump added.

At the end of the day, troop numbers don’t matter, said Cunningham. “The military campaign needs to be accompanied by a broader strategy that includes diplomatic and economic components,” he said.

The diplomatic effort has been hamstrung by the fact that key policy positions in the US Department of State and US embassies abroad have not been filled. Cunningham said it is important that these positions be filled to ensure the success of Trump’s strategy to end the war in Afghanistan.

James B. Cunningham spoke in a phone interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: Has President Trump made an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan?

Cunningham: I don’t know if it is open-ended, but it is an essential step toward changing the dynamic in the region. This is the first time that it is clear that the United States and its international partners are in this for the long term, and that we are going to make our future decisions based on events that are happening on the ground and in the region and not against a timeline.

I have been arguing for a long time that operating against deadlines is self-defeating because it only gives our adversaries encouragement that they can wait us out and discourages our friends and partners because it creates uncertainty about what is going to happen.

There is a lot of detail that [Trump] didn’t fill in. I think that is actually appropriate. But [Trump’s approach] is a very important shift in how the American government is now viewing the dynamic of the conflict in Afghanistan.

Q: What are some other key takeaways from Trump's speech?

Cunningham: Another was Trump’s recognition that the military campaign needs to be accompanied by a broader strategy that includes diplomatic and economic components. That is a crucially important linkage to make because at the end of the day the object has to be to try to get a solution to the conflict and that is not a military proposition; it is a strategic goal that has to be accomplished by diplomacy and by international coalitions and partners, as well as by the Afghans themselves.

The other important piece [Trump] mentioned is that the Afghan government has responsibilities and they need to step up, too. Then, of course, he signaled his intention to try to find a way to change Pakistan’s behavior. That is another important part of this.

Q: While a military victory is not a realistic goal, how important is the diplomatic effort to win this battle and to what extent is it hamstrung by the vacancies at the State Department?

Cunningham: It is crucially important that there be a strong diplomatic effort behind this, both in terms of building and maintaining a coalition effort in the region and in terms of changing the regional dynamic. This is not a job that the military can perform even if it wanted to, and it doesn’t.

I know our military leaders and [Defense] Secretary [James] Mattis know quite well the importance of having a strong and focused civilian diplomatic effort in place. The failure, so far, to fully staff the important policy positions that need to be filled in the State Department and in our embassies in the foreign policy structure of our government obviously undercuts the ability of the administration. I hope that part of the preparation for implementing the strategy will be a renewed push to fill those positions. There is hard and complicated diplomatic work that needs to be done to defeat violent Islamist extremism, not just in Afghanistan but more broadly.

Q: How is the approach Trump outlined different from what has been tried by Barack Obama?

Cunningham: There is a significant overlap [between Obama and Trump’s policies]. The difference is that President Trump has tried to fix the flaws that undermined the efforts of President Obama to implement his own strategy.

[Obama’s] strategy was built around the notion of the Afghans taking responsibility for their own security—quite appropriately. That is the core also of what President Trump said. But President Obama undercut that strategy by tying it to deadlines and timelines. Because he was focused on drawing down the military presence, we were all focused on withdrawing by the end of his term.  There wasn’t, I believe, adequate focus on the political and regional dynamics and trying to figure out a way to couple a long-term security effort with a political strategy and generating the prospects for real negotiations. Those failings have been identified in what the president said [on August 21] and I hope that they will now be part of the implementation of the strategy going forward. The goal has to be to look at this over a longer term, withdraw American assistance as the Afghans develop their own capabilities, but most importantly find a way to tie all this to a political process that can eventually bring an end to the conflict.

Q: While the president did not spell them out, what do you see as important benchmarks for success?

Cunningham: The sense that the Afghans can stabilize their security situation will be an important foundational element. The [troop] numbers don’t really matter. What matters is the flaws in Afghan capabilities that we can help fill and moving ahead on that basis to continue to see improved performance by the Afghan government, the holding of elections, and whether we and our partners can find a way to change Pakistan’s behavior. That will be an important part of process. If we can do those things in the next year or so we will be in a more promising situation.

Q: How should the Trump administration approach talks with the Taliban?

Cunningham: One of the primary things that needs to be done is to limit or remove the ability of the Taliban to enjoy free movement and safe havens in Pakistan. That is a serious impediment in the effort to get them into a position where they will negotiate, even though we know that there are elements of the Taliban who have concluded that their military effort is not going to succeed. Those elements are interested in discussions but probably not on terms that we will find acceptable. We need to launch a multilateral effort to get Pakistan into a better place in terms of its actions, not just its rhetoric, and then find a way to push the Taliban into negotiations. To do that we need to change the strategic calculations [of the Taliban] on what it is possible for them to achieve.  That will take some time and that’s the kind of focused effort that will be required in the months ahead.

Q: Previous US administrations, too, put pressure on Pakistan. How can the United States incentivize Pakistan to change its policies in Afghanistan?

Cunningham: One of the things that has impeded the effort to get Pakistan to act has been Pakistan’s own doubts about what the American goals and commitments are in the longer term. Now that the president has spoken to that, that should be the basis for approaching them with a different set of choices.

This is a question that has bedeviled us and our international partners for quite some time. I think there are now opportunities—particularly if we can muster a genuine multilateral effort—to offer Pakistan a series of incentives and disincentives. We should now go to them, not in public, which makes these kinds of discussions much more difficult, and say “this is our plan and what we collectively with our international partners are out to achieve, and here is one road that Pakistan can go down and here is another road that Pakistan can go down.” We should outline for them what their choices might be in terms of benefits to Pakistan as well as problems that they can anticipate in the future if they continue their hedging behavior and acquiescence to the activities of the Taliban and the Haqqani Network on their territory. That is a very hard thing to do, but it is something that we need to wrap our heads around, and I hope that what the president said last night signals that that is happening.

Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.

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