The surge in Taliban violence and attacks by the Islamic State in Afghanistan will be at the center of President Trump’s focus when he visits NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday.
With U.S. officials signaling the president hopes to lock in commitments for a possible alliance-wide troop increase in Afghanistan, analysts say the commander in chief’s self-professed deal making prowess will be put to the test at a moment when the administration’s wider strategy for the war-torn nation remains unclear.
“Allies know that the United States is debating another surge [in Afghanistan],” said Julianne Smith, a former NATO policy adviser at the Pentagon who heads the Transatlantic Security Program at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security think tank.
“They also understand that they will likely be asked to do more if the United States moves forward with those plans,” Ms. Smith said Wednesday. “But before committing, the allies will want a strategy, something the U.S. administration has not yet shared.”
Mr. Trump may not get NATO commanders to agree to a troop-for-troop match, according to Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. “I think NATO will at least do a little more” in Afghanistan, Mr. O’Hanlon told The Washington Times, adding that, “incrementalism is the usual watchword in burden-sharing debates.”
Mr. Trump’s has had something of a bumpy approach to NATO. He declared it “obsolete” during last year’s presidential campaign, but has since embraced the alliance.
During Thursday’s visit the president is expected, for the first time, to throw his full weight behind NATO’s mutual defense commitment — an agreement that assures members will come to each other’s aid if one comes under attack — during a public ceremony in Brussels.
But the future of U.S.-NATO coordination in Afghanistan will still be on the table. And, uncertainty over the administration’s approach has been fueled by reports of warring factions inside the White House, where a battle between top Pentagon officials and Mr. Trump’s inner circle is seen to have all but paralyzed the push for a new approach to America’s longest war, which is entering its 16th year.
Earlier this month, Mr. Trump appeared poised to authorize an increase of 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. troops for Afghanistan. With NATO leaders expected to respond over the coming months on whether they’ll match the increase, there may be as many as 10,000 total new U.S. and NATO troops heading to the nation.
That would add to the roughly 8,400 U.S. troops currently on the ground — the majority of which are advising Afghan military units in a struggle to prevent Taliban forces from seizing swaths of territory and to respond to the threat of Islamic State terrorist attacks.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford has pressed NATO leaders to have preparations in place to surge alliance forces into Afghanistan, once the White House makes its authorization.
“What I asked my counterparts to do today is be prepared to act quickly,” the four-star general told a small group of reporters following a meeting with NATO leaders on May 18, according to a USA Today report at the time. “If the political decision is to do more, let’s do more as fast as we can.”
In the run up to Mr. Trump’s visit to NATO headquarters, however, some administration officials have walked back the suggestion that a troop increase may be imminent, let alone the completion of a comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday that the “The Afghan policy review is still a work in progress.”
Speaking to reporters while accompanying Mr. Trump to Brussels, Mr. Tillerson said: “There’s still a number of elements of it that we have yet to develop. It’s probably a couple of weeks away at least before we’re going to be ready to present something to the president.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis has suggested he’s hard at work on the plan. “I’ve gone to Afghanistan, I’ve met with [Afghan President Ashraf] Ghani, I’ve met with the NATO representatives and I’ve met with our commander in the field,” Mr. Mattis told reporters last Friday. “I’ve also been in Brussels and also on the side in Copenhagen, [and] talked with my counterparts there to collect allied input.”