Week of August 25th, 2017

Executive Summary

The big issue this week in Washington was Trump’s announced Afghan policy.

The Monitor analysis looks at Trump’s Afghan policy.  We ask if it is a major change in Obama’s strategy, why he acted, and what his future plans are.


Think Tanks Activity Summary

The Heritage Foundation praises the new Afghanistan strategy.  They conclude, “The main focus here, of course, is Pakistan and its nefarious role in harboring and providing succor to elements of the Taliban. As Trump stated very clearly: “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups.” This will likely be the hardest aspect of his strategy to achieve. Both of Trump’s immediate predecessors also made overtures to the “regional” approach to Afghanistan, but neither delivered. Pakistan cannot have it both ways, and the U.S. has a great deal of leverage to use to help Islamabad change its ways. If Trump is seriousness about this and has the political will to truly pressure Pakistan, then his regional approach will succeed where it has failed for others…Success will be achieved when Afghanistan is stable enough to manage its own internal and external security to a degree that stops interference from outside powers, allowing the country to resist the establishment of terror bases that were there before…In that context, the current war in Afghanistan is winnable.”

The Washington Institute looks at the Gulf and GCC nations in terms of Trump’s Afghan strategy.  They conclude, “Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, as well as other Gulf capitals, will try in the coming weeks to assess President Trump’s determination and endurance for the task of making sure that “terrorists can never again use Afghanistan as a haven to attack the United States.” The underlying theme of the speech was that the United States regards India as the future and Pakistan as almost beyond saving. Pakistan has now been given one final chance to reform. For countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whose leaderships regard themselves as the future of the Gulf and the wider Middle East, this message should have struck a chord. Their links to Pakistan could make them an important lever in advancing the new U.S. strategy, a role that should be tested as soon as possible. How these countries respond to President Trump’s ultimatum will be as interesting as the response of Pakistan.”

The CSIS looks at why Trump is losing Afghanistan.  They note, “No decision has been implemented to actually deploy the train and assist and combat support troops the Afghan forces desperately need at the major combat unit level, and even if a decision is taken this week, the end result of the delay will ensure that added personnel can only have a major impact on the 2018 campaign season, and that Afghan forces have already taken serious losses of personnel and territory.”

The Cato Institute looks at the pros and cons of preserving the Iranian nuclear deal.  They summarize, “The promise of the deal includes not only rolling back Iran’s nuclear capabilities for the foreseeable future but also paving the way toward a more constructive diplomatic relationship between Washington and Tehran. Its survival, however, depends on complex and turbulent domestic politics in both countries…Today; his administration is conducting a review of its Iran policy, of which the nuclear deal is a critical component. He has already indicated that he wants to increase pressure on Iran, and his administration has upped the ante with the Islamic Republic, including by suggesting that America is looking to support elements pursuing a transition of power in that country. But the nuclear deal affords the United States a number of opportunities, if the administration sustains it. The United States should clearly reaffirm its commitment to the deal; help reintegrate Iran into the international economy; keep official channels of communication open with Tehran; and engage, rather than isolate, the Islamic Republic.

The Carnegie Endowment calls Trump’s national security strategy a new form of mercantilism.  They note, “With the continuing high degree of uncertainty over the relationship between presidential rhetoric and policy action, it is still too early to clearly characterize Trump’s strategic approach, whether in mercantilist terms or otherwise. And it is not just about Trump. Historically, interest in mercantilism has tended to resurface in moments of profound upheaval, when accepted ideas on the relationship between politics and economics are thrown into question.  The great studies of the subject were penned in Germany during the period of rapid industrialization and urbanization following unification in 1871 and in the years after the Great Depression of the 1930s. And mercantile ideas found a new audience during the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon took the United States off the gold standard, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries succeeded in significantly increasing oil prices, and the world fell into recession for the first time in more than forty years.”

The American Enterprise Institute looks at recent Saudi relations with Iraq.  They note, “Saudi Arabia’s more forward leaning posture could give Iraqi Sunnis confidence to bargain with the Shiites in Baghdad. Knowing that they have a powerful neighbor’s support, they could be more willing to compromise. It should also make them more confident that Shiite hardliners won’t be able to ignore their legitimate demands in areas such as political representation and economic benefits. It could also help them meet the needs of their community after the ravages inflicted by ISIS. Ultimately, Iraqis don’t want to become Saudi dependents either—and they are terrified that Iraq could become the designated battlefield for the next Saudi-Iranian proxy war—but the country would love to be able to rely on another powerful regional state to restore balance to its foreign policy.”

The American Foreign Policy Council looks at Iran’s Jihadi Legion.  Drawn from many displaced nationalities, “It is also a force that represents a grave and growing threat to the Middle East. Today, as the tide of the war begins to turn decisively against ISIS, regional governments are preoccupied with the inevitable return of “alumni” of the Syria conflict to their home countries and regions, and the growing potential for domestic instability as a result. But where this Sunni contingent has been self-generated and self-organizing, its Shi’ite counterpart is both directed and sustained by the Islamic Republic. And in the future, Iran’s leaders may well harness their new expeditionary force beyond the Syrian battlefield, using it as a tool to pursue other geopolitical objectives and target regional rivals. If they do, the nations of the Middle East will be faced with a new, and formidable, asymmetric adversary. So, too, will the United States.”

The Washington Institute looks at the delay or cancelation of $300 million in aid to Egypt.  They warn, “Washington’s concerns regarding Egypt’s dismal human rights record, poor counterterrorism performance, and relationship with North Korea are valid. But the scattershot nature of these conditions, and the fact that bureaucratic and political considerations drove this aid decision rather than any overarching strategy for U.S.-Egypt relations or the broader region, reflects a policymaking process in disarray. Whereas previous administrations’ decisions on changes to aid were announced after they were communicated to the highest levels of the Egyptian government, key Egyptian officials learned of yesterday’s decision only after reading the initial Reuters report. The aid cut also comes only weeks before the United States and Cairo are scheduled to resume the biennial Bright Star joint exercises, which have been redesigned at Washington’s urging to focus on counterterrorism after a four-year hiatus.




President Trump Shifts on Afghanistan

While running for president, Donald Trump made it clear that it was time to leave Afghanistan.

On Monday night, he shifted course.  In his speech to the nation, he said, “Shortly after my inauguration, I directed Secretary of Defense Mattis and my national security team to undertake a comprehensive review of all strategic options in Afghanistan and South Asia.”

“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts, but all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.  So I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every angle.  After many meetings, over many months, we held our final meeting last Friday at Camp David, with my Cabinet and Generals, to complete our strategy.”

Trump’s strategy includes holding Afghanistan accountable for maintaining “their share of the military, political, and economic burden” in exchange for continued U.S. support. The president also issued a sharp rejection of “nation-building.”

“We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society,” he said.

The only tangible part of the policy is sending about 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan – hardly enough to make a big difference.  Trump also put pressure on Pakistan in his speech, calling out the country for serving as a “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror,” including the Taliban.

The response from Congressional Republicans, who have regularly castigated Trump recently, was positive.

Arizona senator John McCain, chairman of the armed services committee, commended the president’s strategy as “long overdue.” He had previously slammed the administration for delaying in setting out a strategy for Afghanistan.

“The President is now moving us well beyond the prior administration’s failed strategy of merely postponing defeat,” McCain said in a statement. “It is especially important that the newly announced strategy gives no timeline for withdrawal, rather ensures that any decision to reduce our commitment in the future will be based on conditions on the ground.”

South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham applauded the president’s strategy.  “President Trump has the smarts and the moral courage to listen to his generals and take their advice, rather than going the political way, and I’m so proud he did.”

So, why did Trump change his strategy?

By all measures, Afghanistan has become a failure.  The Afghan government is unable to pay for basic services, curtail opium production and the drug trade, or utilize the country’s natural resources.  American taxpayer money has been spent on soybeans that won’t grow, weapons that Afghan military forces lost, a $2.9 million farming-storage facility that was never used, and a $456,000 training center that “disintegrated” within four months.

Afghanistan has had the lead responsibility for its own security for more than a year now, and is struggling with a year around insurgency. Heavy losses in the poppy-growing province of Helmand have required rebuilding an Afghan army corps and replacing its commander and some other officers as a result, a U.S. general said, of ‘a combination of incompetence, corruption, and ineffectiveness.’”

From 2002 to 2016, Congress appropriated more than $113 billion to rebuild Afghanistan, paying for roads, clinics, schools, civil-servant salaries, and Afghan military and police forces. Adjusted for inflation, the amount the US spent to reconstruct Afghanistan now exceeds the total amount spent on the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Western Europe after WWII.

In light of all this, and sixteen years of war, it is completely understandable that Americans want to throw up their hands and withdraw all U.S. military forces.  If 9/11 had never occurred, the United States never would have invaded Afghanistan. For most of their history, Americans have paid little or no attention to that country, and would be content to let them set their own course.

The problem is Americans know what happens if they do ignorer Afghanistan now. The Obama administration withdrew from Iraq and assured the public that the departure of coalition troops would not lead to an increased threat to Americans. Then ISIS gradually grew in the US military absence.  Obama was so wedded to the idea that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was the right move and did not exacerbate threats to Americans that he insisted the Islamists taking over Fallujuah were merely the “JV team.”

If American forces leave Afghanistan, it is likely that the Taliban will take over eventually. When they do, it is likely that they will host other terrorists like al Qaeda or ISIS.

That left Trump with several bad options – remain in the quagmire or let Afghanistan remain a haven for terrorists.

Trump has chosen an option that he thinks has a low military profile, yet has some chance of working.

The first change is to put more pressure on Pakistan.  Trump said, “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.  Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan.  It has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists.”

He added, “For its part, Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror.  The threat is worse because Pakistan and India are two nuclear-armed states whose tense relations threaten to spiral into conflict.”

Trump hopes that pressure from India can help move Pakistan – a questionable assumption.

However, Islamabad may take this rhetoric seriously, since it receives about $1 billion a year from the US.

Trump also made it clear that he seeks to prevent a takeover by Taliban, leaving room for a negotiated settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.  He reiterated his support for the Afghan government by saying, “America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress.  However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check.  The American people expect to see real reforms and real results.”

Probably the biggest difference isn’t the number of troops or the commitment to bring Pakistan into the mix.  It appears that Trump has given the American Army the go ahead to prosecute the war in order to win.

Trump said, “I have already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our warfighters that prevented the Secretary of Defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy.  Micromanagement from Washington, DC does not win battles.  They are won in the field drawing upon the judgment and expertise of wartime commanders and front line soldiers acting in real time – with real authority – and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy.”

“That’s why we will also expand authority for American armed forces to target the terrorist and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan.  These killers need to know they have nowhere to hide – that no place is beyond the reach of American arms…Our troops will fight to win.  From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over the country, and stopping mass terror attacks against Americans before they emerge.”

During the campaign, Trump reiterated the fact that Obama wasn’t allowing the US military to prosecute the wars in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan.  When he became president, Trump gave the US permission to aggressively fight and defeat ISIS without sending significant numbers of troops to Syria.   Trump supporters are claiming that this strategy has pushed ISIS back in Iraq and Syria.

It appears that Trump’s strategy is going to focus on giving his generals the go ahead to press the Taliban hoping to achieve some success to force Taliban to come to the negotiation table.  Then, we can expect Trump to move to quickly pull out Afghanistan.  As he noted in his speech, the days of nation building are over.  “But we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our own image – those days are now over.”

So, what is the new strategy?  It’s a more aggressive US military – with a few more soldiers added to the mix.  It’s putting pressure on Pakistan to stop giving havens to terrorists.  It’s forgoing nation building (and the additional financial costs).  And, it’s telling Afghanistan that the final responsibility for peace and stability is in their own hands.

It is worth noting here that if 100 thousand American troops could not succeed in the past, why a 4 or 5 thousand additional troops to the existing 10 thousand can change the situation?




Trump Lays Out a Winning Strategy for Afghanistan
By Luke Coffey
Heritage Foundation
August 22, 2017

After months of speculation and delay, President Donald Trump has sided with the expert advice of his military and national security team on the way forward to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.  In what was by far his best and most statesmanlike speech since taking office, Trump outlined a new approach Monday night to the ongoing war in Afghanistan: a laser-like focus on counterterrorism, jettisoning the quixotic nation-building rhetoric of the past, helping the Afghans defeat the Taliban insurgency (not doing it for them), lifting onerous restrictions placed by the Obama administration on the way the military conducts warfighting, and pressuring Pakistan and its support for certain elements of the Taliban.

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Preserving the Iran Nuclear Deal: Perils and Prospects
By Ariane Tabatabai
Cato Institute
August 15, 2017

Controversy has surrounded the Iran nuclear deal since it was signed two years ago. Although the main stipulations of the agreement have been successfully implemented—Iran has so far complied with the restrictions on its nuclear program in return for the lifting of economic sanctions—the agreement continues to generate harsh criticism in both Iran and the United States. The promise of the deal includes not only rolling back Iran’s nuclear capabilities for the foreseeable future but also paving the way toward a more constructive diplomatic relationship between Washington and Tehran. Its survival, however, depends on complex and turbulent domestic politics in both countries. Since he started his bid for office, President Donald Trump has been a forceful detractor of the agreement, repeatedly vowing to dismantle it. Today, his administration is conducting a review of its Iran policy, of which the nuclear deal is a critical component. He has already indicated that he wants to increase pressure on Iran, and his administration has upped the ante with the Islamic Republic, including by suggesting that America is looking to support elements pursuing a transition of power in that country.

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How the Trump Administration is Losing Afghanistan
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
August 2, 2017

There is a case for a deliberate U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Afghan government remains divided and weak, its security forces will take years of expensive U.S. and allied support to become fully effective, and they may still lose even with such support. Afghanistan is no more likely to become a future center of terrorist attacks outside its borders than many other weak and unstable countries. Both Afghanistan and a troublesome Pakistan have only marginal strategic interest to the U.S. relative to many other areas where the U.S. can use its resources. Moreover, leaving the region places the security and aid burden on Russia, China, and local states—forcing the countries that do have major strategic interests in the region to take on the burden or live with the consequences. The U.S. should not stay in Afghanistan without considering these risks and liabilities, or out of sheer strategic momentum.

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How Saudi Arabia is stepping up in Iraq
By Kenneth Pollack and Firas Maksad
American Enterprise Institute
August 23, 2017

Some of the best news to come from the Middle East in a long time is the recent and long-overdue improvement in relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It started in February, when Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir visited Baghdad—the first such visit since 1990—and continued with a number of subsequent contacts, including a meeting between Iraqi Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) on July 19. Most striking of all was when Iraq’s Shiite firebrand cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, traveled to Riyadh for high level talks on improving bilateral ties with the Saudis on July 31.

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Trump’s National Security Strategy: A New Brand of Mercantilism?
By Salman Ahmed and Alexander Bick
Carnegie Endowment
August 17, 2017

The sixteen national security strategies issued by presidents Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama reaffirmed U.S. leadership of a liberal international order, even as they acknowledged it enabled the rise of others and eroded U.S. economic dominance. President Donald Trump may decide that is no longer tenable. His forthcoming national security strategy will be closely scrutinized to understand what “America First” means for the U.S. role in the world and whether it represents a shift toward a narrower, neo-mercantile approach.

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Beware Iran’s Jihadi Legion
By Ilan Berman
American Foreign Policy Council
August 14, 2017

Today, the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group has become a top strategic priority of the United States and its allies in the region. In turn, the efforts of Washington and Middle Eastern partners have begun to pay real dividends, with recent months seeing a significant rollback the group’s self-declared “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria. But lurking in the background of the current counterterrorism fight is another, and potentially even more significant, long-term threat. Since its rise to prominence in 2014, one of the Islamic State’s most striking – and formidable – features has been its ability to inspire and attract disaffected extremists to its cause. Experts estimate that, to date, the group has drawn some 32,000 radicals from the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and beyond to its nascent state.

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Trump’s Afghanistan Policy and the Gulf
By Simon Henderson
Washington Institute
August 23, 2017
PolicyWatch 2851

The Middle East was not mentioned in President Donald Trump’s major policy speech on August 20 — not even Iran, which has a common border with Afghanistan. The omission was curious given that the New York Times reported earlier this month that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was allying, perversely, given the Shia-Sunni divide, with Taliban fighters to keep the central government in Kabul destabilized. Instead, the focus of the new strategy, as laid out in the speech and the official talking points, was “South Asia,” with Pakistan, described as an “important partner,” being warned to change its behavior, while India is characterized as a “valued partner.” But though unmentioned, Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, longtime allies of Pakistan, are likely to have to choose where they stand. And Iran’s predilection for mischief will have to be thwarted.

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Washington’s Unfocused Decision on Aid to Egypt
By Eric Trager
Washington Institute
August 23, 2017

Washington’s decision on August 22 to delay or cancel nearly $300 million in aid to Egypt caught Cairo by surprise. For many months, the Egyptian government had assumed that the warm rapport between U.S. president Donald Trump and his Egyptian counterpart, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, was sufficient to ensure strong bilateral relations, including the continuation of U.S. military aid after years of uncertainty under the previous administration. The changes in aid, however, illustrate the complex bureaucratic and domestic politics underlying U.S. policy toward Egypt, which the Trump administration failed to manage in this case, producing a confusing outcome that immediately conflicts with the administration’s other priorities.  The decision reflects institutional fights over three separate packages of aid to Egypt, two of which are being canceled.

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