Afghanistan will be the Trump Administration’s First Foreign Policy Crisis


Many hotspots and geopolitical adversaries are constantly in the news and likely at the forefront of the foreign policy issues President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team is focused on. Yet the issue that is most likely to be the first real foreign policy crisis of the Trump administration is the one that received no discussion at all during the presidential debates – Afghanistan.

Remember Afghanistan? The longest war in U.S. history? Where the United States, its allies in NATO, and several partner nations still have in excess of 13,000 troops on the ground? Where the United States last year spent approximately $3.6 billion on security force assistance alone? Where the United States has been dropping ever-larger numbers of bombs since President Obama gave U.S. forces more expansive authorities to achieve so-called “strategic effects?”

As was the case when Barack Obama took office in 2009, Afghanistan is again the “forgotten war,” taking the backseat to a war in Iraq. And just as President Obama inherited a war trending in the wrong direction, so too will President Trump. Today, Afghanistan’s economy is in decline, with its gross domestic product (GDP) having decreased each of the past three years. The country’s government is in a state of routine chaos, with the parliament having just dismissed seven government ministers and the first vice president having just publically beaten and kidnapped a political rival.

The security situation is no better. The commander of U.S. Central Command recently cited district control statistics that suggest 60 percent of Afghanistan’s population live in districts under the government’s control or influence, while about 10 percent live in districts under insurgent control (the rest of the population lives in areas that are contested). Yet these categorizations have been called into question – and anyway, they miss the point of the Taliban-led insurgency’s strategy and operational design, which is to first capture sparsely populated areas and then use those areas to marshal combat power and project it into ever more populated areas. In the independent assessment of Afghanistan’s security forces that CNA conducted in 2013, we stated the following:

The insurgency has been considerably weakened since the surge of U.S. and NATO forces in 2009, but it remains a viable threat to the government of Afghanistan. The coalition’s drawdown will result in a considerable reduction in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations by Afghan, U.S., and NATO forces. History suggests that the Taliban will use sanctuaries in Pakistan to regenerate their capabilities as military pressure on the movement declines. In the 2015–2016 timeframe, we assess that the Taliban are likely to try to keep military pressure on [Afghanistan’s security forces] in rural areas, expand their control and influence in areas vacated by coalition forces, encircle key cities, conduct high-profile attacks in Kabul and other urban areas, and gain leverage for reconciliation negotiations.

Indeed, this is exactly what the Taliban have done this year, whether in capturing rural areas of Kunduz province and using them to influence and ultimately attack into Kunduz City for the second year in a row, or in Helmand where they captured most of the areas surrounding the provincial capital (Lashkar Gah) and used them to launch a short incursion into that city. In both cases, only the deployment of additional U.S. and NATO troops to the area (many of them special operations forces) and heavy reliance on U.S. “strategic effect” airstrikes kept the Taliban from making further advances into the cities. The cold facts are that the Taliban have significant operational momentum in a number of important areas, and while they did not manage to entirely capture a major city this year, they attacked five of them directly (Kunduz City, Lashkar Gah, Tarin Kot, Maimana, and Farah City) and have surrounded the provincial capital of Wardak, a province immediately adjacent to Kabul.

Presumably standing in the way of a Taliban victory are Afghanistan’s security forces, but they have struggled mightily this year. Over the past couple of months, I led a team of researchers at CNA in the conduct of another independent assessment of Afghanistan’s security forces – our third in the past four years. In looking across those assessments, it is clear that while there has been progress in some areas (most notably in the east of the country, with the country’s 201st and 203rd Army Corps), there remain a host of systemic issues with Afghan forces in the north and especially the southwest of the country. To wit, the 215th Army Corps in Helmand province was completely rebuilt last year, and yet it remains combat ineffective, with numerous instances this year of soldiers completely abandoning installations in the face of numerically inferior Taliban forces. The Afghan police remain at best a nascent paramilitary force that is largely incapable of holding areas that have been cleared by the army. Both forces still struggle mightily with nearly all support functions (e.g., logistics and maintenance), and the United States and other NATO member states continue to pay for most of these functions via the use of contractors.

The lack of capability in the conventional army and police forces have led the Afghans to rely even more heavily on the country’s special forces and its air force, both of which are being overused (and in some cases, misused). Indeed, the air force is flying so many hours with its helicopters that the United States is now on the verge of having to recapitalize it with U.S. airframes to the tune of another $815 million. After our third independent assessment of the Afghan security forces, it is clear they are only capable of holding the line in areas absent of significant Taliban pressure, where the coalition has continued to maintain a steady advisory presence, and where there are strong leaders in positions of authority. In areas where these aspects are (or have been) lacking, Afghanistan’s security forces are slowly failing.

What does all this mean for a Trump administration?

First, it means the Taliban have momentum heading into next year’s fighting season and we should not be surprised to see them press the initiative once the passes open in the spring. Indeed, the notion of a larger, more concerted set of Taliban attacks on key districts and provincial capitals in 2017 was something we predicted four years ago, when we stated: “In 2016–2018, once the insurgency has had time to recover from the last several years of U.S. and NATO operations, a larger and more intense military effort will become increasingly likely.” Come springtime, no one should be surprised if the Taliban launch a major offensive against key cities in Afghanistan.

Second, it means that Trump’s transition team should be undertaking a comprehensive review of Afghanistan strategy and policies now, in anticipation of a major Taliban push in 2017. Specific questions such a review should consider include the following:

  • What is the Trump administration’s desired length and depth of commitment to Afghanistan? Do initiatives such as the recapitalization of Afghanistan’s air force with U.S. airframes – which will cost nearly a billion dollars and set back the training and development of the air force by at least five to seven years – align with that commitment?
  • Is a negotiated settlement of the conflict with the Taliban still the U.S. end-state? If so, what are the administration’s critical components (“must haves”) and trade space (“nice to haves”) associated with our interests in Afghanistan? What more can be done to bring about such a settlement?
  • What more can be done to reduce frictions internal to the government of Afghanistan and increase its perceived legitimacy by Afghans?
  • What more can be done to safeguard U.S. investments and expenditures in Afghanistan and reduce corruption associated with our spending there?
  • Does Afghanistan’s police force have the right mix of capabilities and structure to be an effective holding force, especially in rural areas?
  • What is the future of the Afghan Local Police program?
  • Is the U.S. advisory footprint optimally aligned with the critical capability gaps remaining in the Afghan security forces? Do these advisors have the right authorities to be effective?

While other topics monopolize headlines and are likely to consume much of the incoming administration’s energy, Afghanistan remains a significant foreign policy challenge, financial burden, and strategic conundrum for the United States and its allies. Neglecting to get ahead of it will simply increase the magnitude of the crisis that will inevitably face the new Trump administration.


Dr. Jonathan Schroden is the director of the Center for Stability and Development at CNA, a non-profit, non-partisan research and analysis organization located in Arlington, Virginia. The views stated here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of CNA or the Department of the Navy.

Image: U.S. Army photo