Can Trump Come Up with a Comprehensive Strategy to Save Afghanistan?

A coalition Special Operations Forces soldier gives a pen to a young child in Sanawghan village, Herat Province, Afghanistan. Flickr/Department of Defense

The last thing Trump should do is further escalate the level of violence in Afghanistan and fall into a long-term occupation of the country.

The Trump administration is in the final stages of a review of its Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy. There appears to be a consensus in favor of a modest surge of U.S. and NATO forces, perhaps deployed at the brigade or even battalion level with Afghan forces as part of an expanded train, advise and assist mission. Other complementary options are being considered, including a tougher approach toward Pakistan, possibly involving a renewed drone campaign in the country and the option of, down the road, declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terror.

Mission Creep

The desired end state, it appears, remains unchanged: to halt or reverse the advance of the Afghan Taliban and open up an opportunity for peace talks. But President Trump may end up feeling that some career bureaucrats are trying a bait-and-switch approach on him: offering a winning strategy that requires a low cost in terms of initial troop deployments, while removing time limits on the U.S. engagement, with the result being that Trump owns the war and is compelled to raise troop levels as conditions in Afghanistan inevitably worsen. Indeed, the U.S. intelligence community has assessed that the strategy proposed by the Pentagon would actually require the deployment of fifty thousand U.S. troops—far more than the five thousand requested.

A small constituency in the White House, led by chief strategist Steve Bannon, fears that the United States will get further bogged down in Afghanistan, sending precious American lives and money down an endless pit. Within Congress, there are those on both sides of the aisle who concur to a large degree with the Bannonites. And while few, if any, influentials are calling for an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is a critical mass that is asking for a greater clarity of mission and see little logic in doubling down in an unwinnable war in a landlocked country of little long-term strategic significance.

The case made by the Afghanistan skeptics ought to gain a greater hearing. Indeed, there are three major potential threats that have yet to be addressed meaningfully, if at all, in the present debate on Afghanistan. These threats should instill a greater sense of caution as the Trump administration sets its course in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Iran Ascendant

One risk looming in Afghanistan is the growing influence of Iran, which is positioned to have a larger—if not dominant—role in the country over the medium-to-long term.

In 2016, Iran became Afghanistan’s largest trading partner, eclipsing another Afghan neighbor, Pakistan. Afghanistan has sizable trade deficits with both Iran and Pakistan, but its balance of trade with Iran is far more one-sided. According to the Afghan government, Afghan exports to Iran in 2016 totaled around $20 million, compared to $1.8 billion in imports from Iran. In contrast, in 2015, Afghanistan’s exports to Pakistan were valued at $226 million, compared to $1.35 billion in imports from Pakistan.

Afghan trade with the outside world is being increasingly routed through Iran. The reasons are twofold. One, official border crossings on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border have been closed for much of the past two years due to tensions between Kabul and Islamabad. Two, to reduce dependence on Pakistan, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani has sought to use the Iranian ports of Bandar Abbas and Chabahar, as opposed to the Pakistani port of Karachi, which is the closest port to most Afghan cities.

Iran was once seen by some in the United States as a force for stability in Afghanistan working in parallel with U.S. efforts after 9/11. But Iran has stepped up its support for the Afghan Taliban, offering the group financial assistance and weapons. Iran allegedly now even hosts training camps for the Taliban.

At the same time, Iran operates a brigade of Afghan Shia in Syria—the Liwa Fatemiyoun—recruited from Afghan migrants and refugees in Iran, as well as poor Shia in Afghanistan. Beginning as a small brigade of three thousand to guard the shrines particularly holy to Shia Muslims, the Liwa Fatemiyoun is estimated to have upwards of twenty thousand personnel. Compare this to the strength of the Afghan Taliban, which is believed to have around thirty thousand full-time fighters. The Liwa Fatemiyoun has played a frontline role in battles in Allepo, Homs, Palmyra and elsewhere. And in March, Reuters reported that Tehran has sent Afghan specialists from the Liwa Fatemiyoun to advise and train the Houthis in Yemen. Both the growth in the size and expansion of the use of the Fatemiyoun are worrisome.