President Donald Trump announced a “path forward” in Afghanistan Monday evening, after months of failing to implement a clear approach to ending the 16 years U.S. soldiers have spent in the country. The unveiling comes at a precarious time for Trump, who is facing falling approval ratings at home—and who seems more interested in Afghanistan as an investment opportunity than as a country suffering under the weight of an unending war.
“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically, I like following my instincts. But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the oval office,” Trump said at the Fort Myer military base in Arlington, Virginia. “So I studied Afghanistan in great detail, and from every conceivable angle.”
The speech marks a shift for Trump, whose broader approach to foreign policy has come under fire repeatedly for a lack of direction—something that has been especially true of Afghanistan. For months, the president has declined to present a sustainable plan for U.S. action in the country. But failure to push through components of his domestic agenda—especially an unpopular health care bill—coupled with uproar over racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia mean Trump is in need of a win, something a formulated approach to Afghanistan could do.
That’s hardly the only factor prompting the president’s interest in the country. Reports swirled in July that Trump had latched onto Afghanistan’s economic appeal—namely in the form of mineral mining. According to the New York Times, Trump, who was skeptical of continued involvement in Afghanistan, was intrigued by the prospect of the nation’s natural resources. National reconstruction efforts have cost around $117 billion, and Trump sees the potential wealth gained through mineral mining as a motivation for continued U.S. involvement in what is now the longest war the United States has undertaken.
For Afghans, U.S. interest has value. Many Afghans feel that an ongoing U.S. presence in the country is key to stability, and fear an exit could do more harm than good. Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, indicated to Reuters in June that capturing Trump’s attention is seen as a net positive.
“President Trump is keenly interested in Afghanistan’s economic potential,” Mohib said. “Our estimated $1 trillion in copper, iron ore, rare earth elements, aluminum, gold, silver, zinc, mercury and lithium. That’s new.”
Afghanistan has significant quantities of numerous minerals, including iron ore and coal. But an ongoing state of war and brutal occupations by various global powers have left the nation without the infrastructure necessary for viable mining efforts. Laurel Miller, a RAND senior analyst who previously served as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department, told the Times that the Trump administration’s interest is concerning.
“It would be dangerous to use the potential for resource exploitation as a selling point for military engagement,” Miller said at the time. “The barriers to entry are really quite considerable, and that kind of argument could fuel suspicion about America’s real intentions in Afghanistan.”
Others have echoed that opinion, pointing to the dangers posed by mining in Taliban-occupied areas, where many resources are concentrated. Development economist William Byrd, who works with the United States Institute of Peace, told Reuters that the security required for such efforts would be a drain on finances.
“The idea that this will materialize in the near future and pay for the security sector budget is unrealistic,” Byrd said.
Mining isn’t the only Trump administration idea experts are nay-saying. Around 8,000 U.S. troops are currently stationed in Afghanistan, a dramatic reduction from the more than 30,000 troops once stationed there under former President George W. Bush. His successor, Barack Obama, initially sent another 17,000 in an effort to surge security efforts on the ground; some years later, he began the process of withdrawing the majority of troops stationed in the country. Now, Trump wants to send more soldiers into the fight, despite little evidence that such a surge will alter the current situation on the ground. Scholars have noted that Trump’s plan to send a few thousand more soldiers to Afghanistan is unlikely to alter the current balance of power.
“The problem with the White House plan is that we’ve tried it before, during the troop surge in 2010 and 2011, and it didn’t work — even with the withering firepower of 100,000 soldiers unleashed on the Taliban,” Michael Kugelman wrote for CNN in May. Kugelman, who serves as deputy director and senior associate for the Woodrow Wilson Center’s South Asia program, argued that “pursuing reconciliation is the only option” for the country, echoing what other regional experts have noted: endless war isn’t doing anything to change Afghanistan’s ongoing stalemate with the Taliban.
That reality doesn’t seem to be swaying the Trump administration. While the president reportedly wavered over sending more troops to Afghanistan, he gave Secretary of Defense James Mattis the ability to set troop levels in June. Mattis reportedly waited to move forward on the issue due to Trump’s reluctance, something that seems to have shifted in recent weeks as the president has sought a win and weighed the appeal of Afghanistan’s resources. It now appears that he will send troops back into the country—regardless of the odds of success.