HALIFAX, Canada — This August, U.S. President Donald Trump laid out a new strategy for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, calling for more troops and a conditions-based approach to withdrawing them. To officials in Afghanistan, it was a welcome renewal of America’s commitment to Afghanistan, especially as Trump, as a candidate, called into question U.S. presence in the region.
Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s chief executive, spoke with Defense News at Halifax International Security Forum on Nov. 18 about the new strategy.
What do you think about President Trump’s new strategy for Afghanistan? Do you think it will be effective?
We welcome it. We were waiting for it, and the policy came after serious deliberations in Washington and a lot of discussions with the commanders on the ground. And President Trump’s national security team worked on it hard. As we learned today [on Nov. 18], President Trump had asked serious questions about where to go and what’s effective, what’s not, which ended in the announcement of the policy, which we welcome.
Certainly the limits of the policy are promising to a large extent ― the fact that it is not time-bound, it’s condition-based; the fact that it aims to create conditions on the ground so the Taliban will be forced to come to the negotiating table; the fact that sanctuaries and presence of sanctuaries has been identified as one of the main issues and the main challenges. These are all important in setting the policy. And of course with it comes additional resources, additional forces and additional assets.
Also, the authorities of the U.S. commander on the ground has been extended. So these are positive points.
What do you see as the major challenges going forward to eradicate terrorism in Afghanistan? What will it take to make that a reality?
There are two factors that we need to take into account, and our people are in the front line of fighting against Daesh, against al-Qaida, other terrorist groups, the Taliban altogether. That comes with a big price for us, but at the same time, the majority of the people are supportive of the efforts in that regard. People want to see a peaceful end, a stable Afghanistan and an Afghanistan in which the people enjoy their rights, the men and women of the country. This is the view of the majority of the country.
At the same time, there is insecurity. There are these groups that are operating there, and they are inflicting casualties on the people. I have no doubt in my mind that those who are fighting against us are on the losing side of the argument.
We hope that other countries see the South Asia policy as an opportunity, including Pakistan, because the presence of sanctuaries are critical, and it has to be dealt with. That’s important. What it takes, apart from every effort that we are doing on that ground is the support that we receive from the U.S. as well as the NATO countries and dealing with sanctuaries by Pakistan.
According to media reports, Daesh is being driven back from Iraq and Syria. Are you concerned that, as that happens, those fighters could seek safe haven in Afghanistan?
Whether that’s a real potential or not, that’s a different issue. But that makes it even more critical to deal [with] there on the ground. Whether there’s a real potential or not, that remains to be seen. But even [if] there is any likelihood of that happening, that gives you the importance of dealing with this issue.
How would you like to see Afghanistan’s relationship with Pakistan change? What should they be doing to help fight terrorism?
Afghanistan wants to have good relations with all its neighboring countries and countries of the region. We also believe that terrorism is a threat to everyone — it’s not just to Afghanistan, but to all countries in the region. And the ability to cooperate, that has been our stance. Then of course the main hurdle in our relations — the relations between both countries — are the presence of the sanctuaries. Taliban leadership are there — it’s multiple aspects of sanctuaries. And I think it’s in everybody’s interest. These groups, at the end of the day, they will not help any country, any state. They have agendas of their own.
I recently spoke with the U.S. general in charge of the NATO program that trains Afghanistan’s Air Force, and we had an interesting discussion about everything the Afghan military must do to create a self-sustaining Air Force. When you look at Afghanistan’s armed forces, do you feel like they are becoming more self-sufficient, and how long will that take?
The general might have told you that there is already a year past [and] another three years that the Air Force will be equipped and personnel will be trained [by NATO]. Just recently, just a few days ago, there was a graduation ceremony in Czech Republic because the U.S. is doing it in different allies’ countries which they have relations.
And these are young, talented Afghans that are ready to take the challenge and being trained to take the challenge. So we are moving toward self-reliance, and [there is] no need for more examples if I give you just one example. A few years ago, there was 150,000 international troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Today it’s one-tenth of that, and that’s [because of] our Army, National Defense and Security Forces. So the responsibility, we’re assuming more and more responsibility increasingly in the same way in our Air Force. But the strategy will help, beside every other thing, until we get those capabilities to fill the gap in dealing with the security challenges.
How many fully trained troops does Afghanistan currently have?
There are police forces as well as national armed forces. The number altogether is 320,000. And then in the Army, we have the special forces. And the number of the special forces will be doubled in the coming four years as part of that four years of reform.
The police is not just “law and order.” In some areas, they are at the front line of the fight. That makes it unique.
If we are talking about the capability of self-reliance, yes, of course at this stage for air support and intelligence and ISR we rely on American support. But the fighting is done by our own forces, mainly, especially the special forces, which are well-trained, well-equipped and the top standard, I should say. You can ask any American general which is dealing with this issue, and they will say that these are unique in their capabilities.
So the United States is going to continue working with Afghanistan’s military for the next three years. Is that enough?
The current plan is for a four-year plan, which almost a year [has] passed.
Then there will be academies within the country, which will train our young officers, and those institutions will be strengthened as part of that four-year plan. Part of it will be a longer-term engagement, there is no doubt about it, but increasingly we are moving toward more self-reliance.
It sounds like you’re hopeful.
I am, otherwise … [laughs]. The world has become unpredictable. That’s a different issue, but in the realm of possibilities and capabilities and opportunities, we are on track. That is what I am saying.
Are you getting the equipment you need to meet the threats you’re seeing? And if not, what are the capability gaps you’re seeing?
The special forces are fully equipped. They have the equipment to get in contact with satellites and sending images — all those capabilities that are required. But when it comes to the rest of it, raising an army is not an overnight job. Sixteen years back, I remember very vividly that the beginning of it in 2001, 2002 that we were talking about the idea of having a national army, a national police. It was nonexistent. It was forces that belonged to people — rather than institutions — which were in charge of parts of the country. Then in the first few years, which the movement was a bit slow, it was only after four or five years [that we established] a few battalions of the Army or police. So things started from scratch, and there is a lot of progress into the current situation.
So are there specific gaps you can talk about?
Yes, of course there are gaps, and there are limits to the resources that other countries can provide, and Afghanistan has not risen to a stage where we can finance our security needs ourselves. So there are financial gaps as well as technical gaps. But we are moving in that direction.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.