After sixteen years of war, President Donald Trump has outlined his administration’s new strategy to America’s longest running conflict in Afghanistan. So far, components like the promise to increase pressure on Pakistan, the encouragement of India to become more involved in Afghanistan, and a shift away from any time-based withdrawal plan have received the most attention. But a different element—what the president said about the prospect of negotiations—could potentially be among the most impactful. The president’s specific comments are likely to influence those negotiations—and their likelihood of success—in important ways. Specifically, the speech strengthened the US position in any political negotiations. But it also left several areas—including political will for an agreement, diplomatic capacity, and negotiation authority between US advisor forces and the State Department—unaddressed or unclear, and risks strategic drift by having the diplomatic negotiators inherit the debris of the US military’s efforts instead of guiding them from the start.

A negotiation analysis of the Trump administration’s approach helps us understand what, if anything, changed in the new strategy from a negotiation perspective, and what challenges may lie ahead. Before Mr. Trump’s speech, the default US position was that in the absence of a negotiated political settlement involving the Afghan government and the Taliban, the United States intended to leave Afghanistan. This was the posture in place over the second term of the Obama administration as it continued a drawdown of troops from late 2011 to 2014, dropping from over 100,000 and settling at 8,400 at the end of Mr. Obama’s second term. On the diplomatic front, the Obama administration created and staffed the Office Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department. The SRAP office, as it was known, was allocated the authority, and organizational capacity (i.e., people) to conduct diplomatic initiatives in the region.

On the whole, Mr. Trump’s speech clarified the principles the administration believes should guide the US strategic approach to the sixteen-year-old war. But what did it mean for future political negotiations?

Shifting the BATNA

A number of critics have noted that, despite clear efforts to distinguish this as a fundamentally new strategy, the speech was largely a continuation of the Obama administration’s approach. From a negotiation and political settlement perspective though, the Trump administration did shift, as students of negotiation will recall, the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, or BATNA. The BATNA represents what will happen if the parties are not able to come to an agreement—their “no-deal” options. In this case, the Trump administration repositioned the US BATNA decisively: in the absence of an agreement, the default is that the United States will now stay in rather than withdraw from Afghanistan. This reshapes the negotiation dynamics because the Taliban will no longer gain—at least in terms of actions taken by the United States—by saying no to public, national-level negotiations, despite frequent back-channel contact. The Trump administration therefore halted the downward momentum of the US diplomatic position, as well as that of the Afghan government, and enabled a stronger hand in potential direct negotiations.

In tandem with the decision to stay, the expected deployment of additional US military forces as advisors to the Afghan security forces also seeks to worsen the Taliban’s BATNA—namely, to continue to fight to gain ground and allegiances throughout Afghanistan—by reversing the gains they have achieved over the last two years. With additional US military forces on the ground, the US expectation is that the Taliban will lose ground moving forward.  However, several gaps in Mr. Trump’s speech hinder the strengthened US BATNA and make it less likely the United States can take advantage of weakening the Taliban’s BATNA.

Questions of Political Will Regarding a Settlement

The speech itself left ambiguity regarding the Trump administration’s political intention, even will, regarding diplomacy and negotiation in Afghanistan. Mr. Trump noted, “Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.” But this appeared to merely nod to the possibility of a negotiated settlement, largely in the abstract. In turn, despite the decision to stay, the level of US political will regarding a diplomatic settlement vis-à-vis the Afghan government and the Taliban themselves remains unclear. Without a stronger signal, doubt concerning US intentions will remain and make substantive negotiations far less likely.

Later in the speech Mr. Trump explained, “Military power alone will not bring peace to Afghanistan or stop the terrorist threat arising in that country.  But strategically applied force aims to create the conditions for a political process to achieve a lasting peace.” In this sentence, Mr. Trump and his advisors indicated recognition of a potential political process—once certain “conditions” have been created. However, it was left unsaid what the actual conditions to enable a political process and negotiated settlement are. This haziness is compounded because it is not clear who in the US government will be responsible for a diplomatic political process in Afghanistan and likely would decide when the “conditions” are actually in place. In the negotiation field, the question of authority and mandate is imperative because it clarifies—to those on all sides of the negotiation—who can actually make the deal itself.

Questions of Capacity and Authority

With Mr. Trump’s speech, authority and mandate become crucial issues, especially regarding the role of the State Department in the strategy. As former Secretary of State George P. Shultz has famously noted, “If you want me in on the landing, then include me on the takeoff.” This is where several gaps in capacity and authority, unaddressed in the speech itself, remain. While the Pentagon prepares to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan, Mr. Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to the country was only put forward in July and has yet to take up his post.  Most recently, at the regional level, the SRAP office was recently reduced in staff and scheduled to be folded in to the State Department’s Bureau of Central and South Asian Affairs. While there may be some organizational benefit to this move over time, there is currently no political nominee to lead the bureau itself.

In short, Mr. Trump will have to assign responsibility of who within his administration will stick the landing in Afghanistan. Given Mr. Trump’s attention in the speech to a regional approach involving Pakistan and India—and although unmentioned, likely including China, Russia, and Iran over time—it is improbable that the future US ambassador to Afghanistan will assume responsibility for both international and national diplomacy regarding Afghanistan. A number of options, including a special envoy operating from the White House (similar to Jared Kushner’s unique envoy role), or a special envoy operating from the State Department (similar to the SRAP), remain available.

At the same time, working with international actors in a regional approach will not by itself solve Afghanistan’s local conflicts, often centered on land ownership, water access, and poppy growth, amongst other conflicts. Based on my own dissertation research involving the use of negotiation by over forty infantry battalion commanders in Helmand province from 2008 to 2014, and my experience as a former US military officer in Afghanistan, the lack of attention to Afghanistan’s sub-national politics in the speech and the expected deployment of US military forces as advisors at that same level will create an additional resource and authority mismatch for those closest to the decentralized conflict.

US Resource and Authority Mismatch in Afghanistan’s Provinces

Once in place, a potential special envoy and the US ambassador to Afghanistan will not be able to capitalize on additional troops without substantial US facilitation (not ownership) in Afghanistan’s sub-national and provincial political complexities. This political finesse complements the role of US military advisors while stopping well short of “nation-building.”  It is not clear how the new strategy intends to approach this messy reality. While Mr. Trump announced the expansion of authorities of military commanders to conduct military strikes, little was said about the authorities afforded to them, or to the State Department, to reach sub-national agreements involving Taliban affiliates, Afghan government representatives, and US advisor forces. The challenge—and opportunity—is recognizing that many talks between the Afghan government and the “Taliban” occur throughout Afghanistan’s different provinces on a daily basis. This raises the important question, to any negotiator, of what a target deal could look like. In his statement released in tandem with Mr. Trump’s speech, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted, “We stand ready to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban without preconditions.”  Given Afghanistan’s recent decades of war and civil war however, a neat, nationwide agreement is unlikely in the near term (nor are the Taliban a unified organization).

All of this creates a gap in negotiation mandate as US military commanders and units move forward. Today, the US military largely performs a training and advising role with the Afghan security forces. While those forces are in the best position to observe, as well as facilitate, sub-national negotiations and ceasefires between Afghan forces and Taliban franchises, they don’t currently see it as their role (nor are they trained or prepared to do it). Yet it is at the provincial and district levels where questions of who is aligned with the Taliban and who is aligned with the government can shift in both the short and long run. There may be temporary, or even fleeting, settlements of convenience, and local political settlements may occur in segments of different provinces. While US military forces may now be afforded extra permissions to drop bombs, they are unclear on their authorities to negotiate to achieve the desired end state of a political agreement. Stated more bluntly: A lot of troops are assigned to advise on the shooting, but it is unclear who is supposed to be doing the talking in Afghanistan’s provinces.

Currently—and this is a legacy of the Obama administration’s post-2014 Afghanistan policy—State Department representatives are largely absent at the sub-national level and unavailable to engage in diplomatic facilitation, negotiation, and mediation alongside the Train/Advise/Assist Commands (TAACs) and Task Forces that fall under US Army Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan. There is a mismatch between the resources and personnel of the US military in Afghanistan, the resources and personnel of the US State Department there, and who holds the negotiation mandate. A decision concerning responsibility for the distributed diplomatic engagement required in Afghanistan’s distinct regions and provinces—US military commanders, State Department representatives, or a combination of both—will have to be made. Once it is—and this is most challenging for the new strategy—all that extra military effort should be in support of what the potential US envoy responsible for the “deal” wants done.

All of this does not bode well in the near term for a negotiated diplomatic settlement in Afghanistan. As the US military moves forward expeditiously, the potential special envoy, future assistant secretary of state of the Bureau for Central and South Asian Affairs, and future US ambassador to Afghanistan will inherit the consequences of the military’s efforts instead of guiding them from the start. At the same time, due to imbalances in capacity and authority, it is unclear if the US military or the State Department forces will facilitate political dialogue at the sub-national level. Notwithstanding the reinforced resolve in Mr. Trump’s speech and its ability to shift the US BATNA, it may be some time until the United States is postured to benefit, in a negotiation sense, from its decision to send additional US military forces to Afghanistan.


Michael Baskin is a PhD Candidate at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where his dissertation examines the use of shooting and talking by US military forces in Afghanistan. A former US military officer with service in Afghanistan and Iraq, he was a Graduate Research Fellow at Harvard’s Program on Negotiation in 2015-2016.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.


Image credit: Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley, US Air Force