The new US strategy in Afghanistan, by working more closely with Kabul and taking a harder line toward Pakistan, stands a better chance of working than previous plans, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said on Sept. 20.
Speaking at an Asia Society meeting in New York, Ghani said former President Barack Obama’s previous strategy to try to successfully conclude the 16-year war and withdraw US troops failed because Obama “did not have a partner in Afghanistan.”
Ghani did not elaborate, but his remarks implicitly criticized his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who had a sometimes rocky relationship with Washington.
Unlike Obama, US President Donald Trump has “a team of partners in Afghanistan,” Ghani said, and Trump developed his strategy after holding “immense consultations with us.”
Ghani gave Obama credit for his decision to maintain some US forces in Afghanistan rather than following his pledge to pull them all out, saying that decision “ensured our survival” at a time when Taliban militants were strengthening in their drive to defeat and unseat the government.
Ghani, in a separate interview with National Public Radio due to air on Sept. 21, revealed some details of Trump’s Afghan strategy not previously disclosed by the White House.
He said the administration’s objective is to bring 80 percent of Afghanistan back under the government’s control in the next four years. The United States currently estimates that the government directly controls only about half the country.
Ghani told NPR that the new strategy’s goal is to double the size of the Afghan commando force and elevate it from a division to a corps command, while bolstering the Afghan military’s airpower.
All this would occur as Kabul overhauls its military leadership, he said.
“We ourselves are changing management and leadership. Our minister of defense is under 40. A new generation is taking over,” he told NPR, adding that older generals are being honorably retired.
Under the plan, Ghani told NPR that US troops will continue to advise, assist, and train Afghan forces and will not return to a combat role.
But “the advisers will be working now at the division level to make sure that the systems processes are there,” he said.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said this week that more than 3,000 additional US troops are being deployed to Afghanistan under the new strategy, raising the total number of US forces to more than 14,000. That compares with a high of more than 100,000 troops under Obama.
Part of Trump’s announced strategy is to take a tougher line toward Pakistan for allegedly providing refuge to the Afghan Taliban and other extremist groups. Pakistan denies the accusations.
Ghani told the Asia Society that by targeting Pakistan and taking a more “regional approach,” the Trump strategy provides a new opening for peace talks.
“The message to Pakistan to engage and become a responsible stakeholder in the region and in the fight against terrorism has never been clearer,” he said.
“What I am offering the Pakistan government, the Pakistan security apparatus, is the invitation to a comprehensive dialogue,” Ghani said. “If Pakistan does not take this opportunity, I think they will pay a high price.”
Ghani said Afghan forces are getting better, having gained more experience by assuming a bigger role in the fighting after the massive cuts in US forces under Obama.
He said he believes it will not take another decade to win or settle the war but rather “some limited years.”