TSC IntelBrief: Secretary Tillerson and the U.S. Afghan Strategy
Bottom Line Up Front
• On October 23, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made unannounced visits to Afghanistan and Iraq.
• While Tillerson touted recent examples of progress in Iraq, deteriorating security in Afghanistan kept the Secretary confined to Bagram Air Base.
• At Bagram, Tillerson stated the U.S. believed there were ‘moderate voices among the Taliban, voices that do not want to continue to fight forever.’
• The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is to force the Taliban to the negotiating table by denying it a military victory, a variation on a 16-year theme.
On October 23, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, his first since taking office as Washington’s top diplomat. Security in the country is so poor Tillerson didn’t attempt to visit the capital, Kabul, much less drop by the U.S. Embassy. Instead, Tillerson spent his two hours on the ground in a large bunker at Bagram Air Base, where he met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.
The need for secrecy was clear. During a September visit by U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the Taliban launched several rockets at the Kabul International Airport, a high-profile statement about the capital’s security. During Secretary Tillerson’s brief visit, there were no reports of rocket fire or shelling in Kabul.
Both Secretaries visits were to advise officials on the Trump Administration’s ‘new’ strategy for Afghanistan, where U.S. forces have been fighting for 16 years. The strategy consists of adding perhaps 5,000 more U.S. military personnel for advising and training government forces, while putting more pressure on Pakistan and India for talks to create a potential regional solution.
According to an October 22 report in the New York Times, the CIA is also expanding its role in Afghanistan. Officers from the Agency’s Special Activities Division (SAD) are embedding with local Afghan units called Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams (CTPT), while case officers work source networks to gain insight and access into groups such as al-Qaeda, the so-called Islamic State and the Taliban. Until now the CIA had not focused on combatting the Taliban, instead pursuing a more narrow counterterrorism mission while the military dealt with the larger insurgency.
Secretary Tillerson, who flew to Qatar and then Iraq after leaving Afghanistan, will fly on to India and Pakistan this week as part of the U.S. push for a comprehensive solution to the Afghan civil war. It is expected that Tillerson will put more pressure on Pakistan to cut off the Taliban’s sanctuary in the country’s tribal regions. Since 2001, U.S. and Afghan officials have frequently complained about Pakistani support for the Taliban and the allied Haqqani network, saying military advancements in Afghanistan were negated by the insurgents’ sanctuary just across the border.
The Trump administration is increasing its military capability in Afghanistan, in hopes of demonstrating to the Taliban that it can’t achieve a military victory. The strategy is similar to that of the two previous administrations, though the semantics of success or timing may have changed. The goal is to force the Taliban to the negotiating table, or splinter the group (which is hardly a unified bloc to begin with). Secretary Tillerson stated as much during his visit, saying: ‘there are, we believe, moderate voices among the Taliban, voices that do not want to continue to fight forever. They don’t want their children to fight forever. So we are looking to engage with those voices and have them engage in a reconciliation process leading to a peace process and their full involvement and participation in the government.’ Having Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan working on the same strategy would provide the best chances for a lasting resolution of the conflict. However, it remains uncertain how effective the current approach can be in shaping decisions made in Kabul, Islamabad, and New Delhi.
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