The U.S. and Afghanistan: The Future of This Strategic Partnership

United States Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made an unexpected visit to Afghanistan this past Friday, to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani amidst rising violence in Kabul. General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined Mattis in this meeting. Defense Secretary Mattis and President Ghani had a significant number of topics to cover, including current US- Afghan relations. Ghani’s official spokesperson wrote in a tweet, “They discussed peace process, positive impact of the South Asia strategy, reforms in ANDSF, upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, counter-terrorism and dialogue with Pakistan.” The United States and Afghanistan have established a strategic partnership over the past decade, one that is still developing as combat operations continue in Afghanistan. The future of this strategic partnership is dependent on President Trump’s South Asia Strategy, specifically regarding his stance on the U.S. role in Afghanistan and his denouncement of Pakistan’s involvement in the war.


This meeting is one of many developments that have taken place regarding the subversive influences in Afghanistan. The United States and Afghanistan have been working together closely since the early 2000s to combat the violence that has been plaguing the country, with some of the primary perpetrators of this unrest being the Taliban, Al- Qaeda, and ISIS- K. In 2012, former United States President Obama and former Afghanistan President Karzai signed the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement, which outlined the terms of the strategic partnership between the two countries. The White House Office of the Press Secretary had explained in their statement of this agreement, “U.S. commitments to support Afghanistan’s social and economic development, security, institutions and regional cooperation are matched by Afghan commitments to strengthen accountability, transparency, oversight, and to protect the human rights of all Afghans – men and women.” The agreement has served as a guide for both nations, especially regarding their responsibilities to one another, and was followed by the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA).


The United States and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) are still working together to reduce the influence of the Taliban in the country, especially due to the resurgence of Taliban attacks in early 2018.  Two years after the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington D.C., NATO undertook responsibility for the UN- mandated International Security Assistance Force Mission (ISAF). This mission worked alongside the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) until they were able to bear full leadership in the combat operations in 2015. This year, the U.S. has sent thousands of more troops to Afghanistan to fight the terrorist group and to give guidance to ANDSF on strategy, and has increased air strikes in the region as well. A few months ago, a top U.S. State Department official and Taliban officials had met to discuss potential peace talks between all parties, marking the potential beginning of the end of the longstanding war.

The future of United States- Afghan relations is reliant on President Trump’s South Asia Strategy. The Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs stated that the South Asia Strategy is conditions- based, and will focus on creating dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government. In some ways, the Trump Administration’s development of United States- Afghanistan relations seems to be primarily a military one. In his address at Conmy Hall, Trump stated, “We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society. We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.” His position on why the United States is present in Afghanistan is clear: to win the war against terrorism.


The recent meeting between Defense Secretary Mattis and President Ghani exemplifies this very fact, with the two discussing ANDSF and counter- terrorism with the rising violence in Kabul. The previously created Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement under the Obama Administration had outlined the United States’ intent to support Afghanistan’s social and economic development, as well as their societal institutions. Trump’s statement made it clear that his administration will first be focused on “killing the terrorists,” and less on the other aspects of the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement. The recent upsurge of Taliban violence has contributed to this fact, but dialogue with the terrorist organization may still be possible. Mattis stated last week, “Right now, we have more indications that reconciliation is no longer just a shimmer out there, no longer just a mirage… It now has some framework. There’s some open lines of communication.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has appointed Zalmay Khalilzad to supervise this process, but the talks have not officially begun yet.


President Trump has also taken a hard stance on Pakistan, addressing the country’s impact on U.S.- Afghan relations. President Trump has stated, “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan's safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.” This topic was also discussed in the meeting between U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and President Ashraf Ghani, specifically about what dialogue will play out between all parties. Trump believes that Pakistan has a lot to gain by partnering with Afghanistan and supporting the country’s mission to dismantle the terrorist groups, whereas working with these groups will only be detrimental to Pakistan.


The United States and Afghanistan have developed a strategic partnership over the past decade, one that is continuing to grow as both countries tackle the violence and unrest that is present in the region. Defense Secretary Mattis’ visit to Afghanistan exemplifies this growth, and Pakistan’s actions in the war will also determine how the United States will react.