(WASHINGTON) — The United States is stuck in a political and military stalemate in Afghanistan, and it is unclear whether President Donald Trump’s new strategy in the country will resolve it, a former U.S. envoy to NATO said.
“If our goal is stalemate, we’ve achieved it,” former NATO Ambassador Douglas Lute told ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos in an interview on ABC’s This Week Sunday that also included Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and the United Nations under President George W. Bush.
Lute was responding to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments Tuesday about the administration’s new strategy in Afghanistan, when he said, “This entire effort is intended to put pressure on the Taliban to have the Taliban understand: You will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you.”
“We have not only a stalemate on the security situation, but a threefold stalemate on the political front,” said Lute, a retired Army lieutenant general who served as an adviser on Afghan policy under both President Bush and President Obama. “We have a political stalemate in Kabul. We have a political stalemate in the region, and we have a political stalemate with regards to trying to enter talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.”
Khalilzad took a somewhat different view, telling Stephanopoulos that he believes the stalemate “has been shifting in favor of the Taliban in recent weeks and months.”
“They have been gaining ground,” he said. “So why should they negotiate for peace if they think they’re going to win the war?”
But Khalilzad said an important change in President Trump’s new strategy is its “sharp focus” on Pakistan, particularly its assistance to U.S. enemies in the region.
“This has been in my judgment the single most important factor, the Pakistan problem, for prolonging the war,” Khalilzad said, adding that he believes the United States has leverage over the country to Afghanistan’s south and west.
“We have the leverage of cutting off assistance,” he said. “We have the leverage of putting … individuals who support groups such as the Taliban on a blacklist.”
Lute was less sanguine. “I’m actually skeptical that we have sufficient leverage against Pakistan to change their strategic calculus,” he said.
“We don’t have to accept [Pakistan’s] perspective, but understanding it is the start point,” Lute said. “And that start point begins with their view that their tension, that their competition with India is existential, and everything flows through that lens.”
Lute and Khalilzad agreed that more details are needed to fully assess Trump’s Afghanistan strategy.
“We heard a lot about what it is we want to accomplish,” Lute said. “We heard very little on how.”
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