Trump's demand to Pakistan could be 'game-changer' on Afghanistan

Key Points
  • Trump's warning to Pakistan that it must stop harboring terrorist organizations and the Taliban represents "a radical shift" in U.S. policy that could improve the situation in Afghanistan, according to analysts.
  • In a national address Monday, Trump spoke of his new strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia. He accused Pakistan of working with "agents of chaos" and said things "will have to change."
  • Some believe Washington may declare Pakistan a terrorist state or may consider sanctions against those linked to militant and terror groups.
  • There was also a report Tuesday the number of U.S. forces already in Afghanistan exceeds 12,000, above previous numbers acknowledged by the Pentagon; another 4,000 service members scheduled to deploy within weeks will bring the total number to around 16,000 forces.
A U.S. Marine advisor demonstrates proper firing techniques on a machine gun to Afghan National Army soldiers during a live-fire range at Camp Shorabak, Afghanistan, Aug. 17, 2017.
Courtesy U.S. Marine Corps | Sgt. Lucas Hopkins

President Donald Trump's warning to Pakistan that it must stop harboring terrorist organizations and the Taliban represents "a radical shift" in U.S. policy that could improve the situation in war-torn Afghanistan, according to analysts.

At the same time, it represents a pivot for U.S. foreign policy more toward developing a closer alliance with India and less focus on Pakistan, a country that has irritated Washington for years due to its support of militant and terror groups.

"Today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world," Trump said Monday in an address to the nation.

Late Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported "more than 12,000 U.S. troops" are stationed in Afghanistan, a figure the paper noted was "about 3,500 more than" the Pentagon has publicly acknowledged.

The Journal reported "another 3,900 troops" will be sent to Afghanistan under the president's new strategy, bringing the total number to "about 16,000 troops." It cited unnamed defense officials.

The Pentagon declined comment to CNBC but there have been numerous reports the new strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia that Trump outlined includes sending additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan. The 16-year-long Afghanistan war also has included a significant contingent of NATO forces.

Without providing specifics, Defense Secretary James Mattis said in a statement Monday: "I have directed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to make preparations to carry out the president's strategy."

Mattis, a retired Marine Corps four-star general, added: "I will be in consultation with the secretary general of NATO and our allies — several of which have also committed to increasing their troop numbers. Together, we will assist the Afghan security forces to destroy the terrorist hub."

Earlier this week, the Pentagon told CNBC there are about 8,400 U.S. forces in Afghanistan, although at the peak during the surge in August 2010 there were about 100,000 service members. The U.S. has spent well over $800 billion fighting the conflict, and there have been more than 2,400 U.S. military fatalities and tens of thousands of soldiers wounded.

The roughly 4,000 new U.S. forces expected to go to Afghanistan will likely help in training and assist Afghan's security forces.

Yet it was the tougher line on Pakistan that got much of the attention in Monday's national address by the president because it marked a departure from previous U.S. administrations.

Trump said the U.S. considers Pakistan "a valued partner" but stressed that housing "agents of chaos" such as the Taliban and terror groups who go after American service members and officials "will have to change, and that will change immediately."

Trump's comments on Pakistan cooperation notable: Academic
Trump's comments on Pakistan cooperation notable: Academic

Also, the president emphasized the "strategic partnership with India" and how the U.S. wants India "to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development." In June, Trump met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House in what some viewed as a sign of stronger ties to come between the world's two largest democracies.

"The fact that he is willing to call Pakistan out for its sponsoring of terrorist groups is a radical shift in U.S. policy," said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based conservative think tank. "Previous presidents have been unwilling to do so."

Some believe the time is overdue for Washington to declare Pakistan a terrorist state and to consider sanctions against individuals or entities in the Islamic country linked to militant and terror groups fighting the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. There are also reports suggesting Pakistan's intelligence services may be helping to finance ISIS-affiliated terrorists in Afghanistan.

The thinking goes that if you apply pressure on Pakistani elements supporting Sunni extremist groups, such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda, then it could turn things around in Afghanistan by choking off money and the route from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Money flows to the terror groups through the illicit drug trade, which travels along these same routes.

Yet the new sanctions and tilt toward India also present risks for the U.S. because it could result in China increasing its military and other ties to Pakistan. After Trump's speech, China's foreign minister reiterated the country's support for Pakistan.

Roggio said if the president can actually get Pakistan to change its behavior "then that could be a game-changer inside Afghanistan. The Taliban just wouldn't exist as a potent insurgency without the support of Pakistani military and intelligence establishment."

Pakistan's support of terrorism also has increased its tensions with rival India.

"The Trump administration is really trying to reorient themselves in South Asia more towards India and less on Pakistan," said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, a think tank founded by former President Richard Nixon.

Added Kazianis, "Pakistan is very closely aligned with China, who obviously has very different interests than the United States. India can help with Afghanistan, but India can also be that sort of hedge against China."

Trump urged a "speedy withdrawal" from Afghanistan back in 2013, and in his remarks Monday said he shared "the American people's frustration" over the lengthy war. "My original instinct was to pull out — and, historically, I like following my instincts."

However, Trump said he "studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle" and concluded the U.S. needs to carry on and "seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives." The president also said he didn't want to "repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq" by pulling out too soon.

"He doesn't want to be the president to lose Afghanistan," said Kazianis. "And at the same time, he doesn't want to allow al-Qaeda or ISIS or somebody else to slip in there and control the country — or the Taliban."

That said, Kazianis believes the speech was a recognition by the president that "there isn't going to be anybody winning the Afghanistan war anytime soon."

Trump had been criticized by some members of his own party in Congress for not having a strategy earlier on Afghanistan. The president and his team have been looking for a strategy to turn things around as the security situation in Afghanistan becomes increasingly volatile.

There's been a lengthy debate within the administration about the strategy to pursue in Afghanistan, with Trump's national security team suggesting sharply different approaches.

"At the end of the day, this is a war that we've been fighting for almost 16 years, and it seems like nothing has worked for much of those 16 years," said Michael Kugelman, the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center. "So I think it's good that the president led a very in-depth, comprehensive review."

Then again, Kugelman said the administration can be criticized for "a level of indecision and divisiveness within the White House which has caused the review to take longer than it otherwise should have. I do think, given how alarming the situation is on the ground now in Afghanistan, we really cannot afford to wait anymore."

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