Trump’s Afghanistan strategy: Escalation is more likely than a decrease in war violence and terrorism


Thumbs down for president Trump’s so called ‘strategy’

In this article, I evaluate America’s latest Afghanistan strategy – as it is called – which was presented by president Trump, yesterday. This is part I of the evaluation.

Trump’s so-called Afghanistan ‘strategy’ does not even meet the most basic requirements to ensure even a minimum of success, as I shall explain.


Before elaborating on America’s strategy update, let’s be clear about what strategy actually is, and what basic requirements must be met to qualify as such:

It is possible – and necessary – to distinguish between strategic levels, in this case between grand and military strategy:

C.S. Gray defines grand strategy as “The direction and use made of any or all among the total assets of a security community in support of its policy goals as decided by politics. The theory and practice of grand strategy is the theory and practice of statecraft itself“.

According to Gray, Military strategy concerns: “The direction and use of force and the threat of force for the purposes of policy as decided by politics“.

Strategy is – and must be – more than just plans: “Strategy is instrumental in achieving desired ends, in achieving intended consequences”.

It is possible to distinguish the following strategic components: (1) desired ends, (2) the direction and use of means that are (made) available, and (3) chosen ways to achieve the desired ends.

Consistency is an important requirement for a strategy, including consistency between ends, means and ways, consistency between strategic levels (coordination between grand and military strategies), and between/with partners that are an integral part of the strategy.



At the basis of America’s strategic failures are a lack of an inspiring vision. If the US choses to play the (self-imposed) role of global ‘balancer’, an in spiring vision is indispensable; a vision is “A concept of the desired condition that serves to inspire, and provide moral and political authority for policy preferences and choices“.

Under president Trump, America’s vision is downgraded to a very egoistic, uninspiring and divisive concept: ‘America first‘, that even fails to inspire the American population his exceptionally low approval ratings clearly show.



The ‘new’ strategy president Trump presented yesterday, does not meet any of these requirements, and even lacks the most fundamental component; a clear and attainable end state.

The desired end state in Afghanistan is not defined at all: Trump wants “victory” and “to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table to find a political solution to the Afghan war“, however, he himself doubts “the Taliban would come to the negotiating table“.

These doubts of president Trump – the U.S. commander in chief – of course undermine the US strategy, even more than “announcing the dates the U.S. intends to begin or end military operations“, a practice (of president Obama) president Trump and Mattis (the U.S. secretary of defense) abhor.

Concerning the end state in Afghanistan – as discussed by president Trump, yesterday – it is even more important to notice that “victory” and the “negotiating table” are not end states. The “negotiating table” is itself just a step in a process to the – still undefined – end state. “Victory” – without further explanation  is just a hollow – empty – phrase, that does not provide any strategic direction.

It is not clear what – let alone how and when – president Trump wants to achieve: Slogans are not a substitutie for strategy.

Although president Trump is not clear in what he wants to achieve, he is very clear in what he does not want: “nation building“. As president Trump puts it: “we are killing terrorists“, that is the ‘business’ Trump is in.

These incoherent remarks show that the ‘new’ Afghanistan strategy is fundamentally flawed:  The terrorist attacks in Afghanistan are integral to an insurgency war the Taliban is waging against the US and NATO. Nation building – and building trust with the Afghan population – are key in fighting an insurgency. The Afghan population is the “battle ground” for the insurgents, and gives them the leverage to undermine the counter-insurgency of the US and NATO.

Nation building and fighting terrorism are inextricably linked and the Afghanistan strategy should reflect this (very) basic fact: “Winning” a counter insurgency war (whatever the exact definition of winning) is not possible without nation building.



President Trump also announced new efforts to get a better grip on Pakistan. As president Trump put it: “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately“. How he will change this – ‘immediately’ – is however not clear.

President Trump also explained how India – Pakistan’s arch (and nuclear) rival – could contribute to the Afghan war effort. The U.S. wants India to help more on Afghanistan, particular with economic assistance and development.

President Trump mentioned “the billions of dollars in trade between India and the US“. It seems – as Trump did with China in relation to North Korea – to remind India of its economic dependence on the US. President Trump again confuses arm twisting with strategy.

These thoughtless and inconsistent ‘ideas’ do obviously not qualify as (grand) strategy. Pakistan’s harboring of terrorists networks is closely related to its rivalries with India: The terrorist networks are used by Pakistan to maintain a certain level of control and presence in Afghanistan, and to deny India – its arch rival – a foothold on Pakistan’s vulnerable western flank.

Stopping Pakistan from housing terrorists is an understandable goal. However, stopping terrorist housing, and at the same time involving India more in Afghanistan are contradictory – and self-defeating – ‘strategic’ ideas. After 16 years of war, the US should be aware of this basic reality on the ground in Afghanistan.



President Trump’s Afghanistan ‘strategy’ is a totally incoherent set of wild ideas.

This incoherent ‘strategy’ will not bring an end to the already 16-years-old war in Afghanistan, to the contrary: By implementing presidents Trump’s inconsistent ideas, further escalation is more likely, than a decrease in war violence and terrorism.