Few people in late 2001 would have predicted that two US administrations later Afghanistan would have still figured as a major unresolved foreign policy issue for the US government. Although Afghanistan has dropped dramatically as a priority for America, both Afghanistan’s country outlook and the Afghan US foreign policy priority appear in a much worse shape today. However unpleasant this sight might be (and it is indeed), can the Trump Administration simply walk away from it? Despite the rhetoric used by candidate Trump during his electoral campaign, and his verbal opposition to ‘nation-building’, it might well be that the consequences of walking away might be even more negative and unpleasant than staying put, not only for Afghanistan but also for the Trump Administration and for America’s foreign policy. But on the other hand, can the US stay in Afghanistan forever, seemingly without making much progress in consolidating a friendly government there?
In fact during the first two months or so of the Trump Administration, the prospect of a complete, sudden American cut-off appears to be receding. None of the main figures in the security apparatus of the Administration are in favour of abandoning Afghanistan.
But arguably the Trump Administration cannot afford to do business as usual in Afghanistan either. This is not just because it would not look good, after all the rhetoric against the shortcomings of the Obama Administration, to follow exactly the same path. It is also clear that the current eroding stalemate, with Afghan security forces losing more and more control, is not sustainable indefinitely. It does not seem too likely to be leading to a negotiated settlement either. It could lead to several more years of indecisive conflict, or it could lead to defeat.
Something has to be done; but what? This paper reviews the debates in the US and highlights the options and the opportunities and risk implicit in each of them. We start however with a short survey of where the ‘Afghanistan project’ of America is at now.