Afghan Officials Seek Clues From Trump Administration As Adviser Heads To Kabul

Afghan Officials Seek Clues From Trump Administration As Adviser Heads To Kabul

Afghan officials has hoped US to take a harder line on Pakistan and the Taliban. (Reuters)

Kabul:  US President Donald Trump is dispatching his first high-level delegation to Afghanistan to begin to formulate a strategy for a war that has entangled NATO forces for more than 15 years and continues to inflict heavy casualties on local troops.

Afghan officials hope National Security Adviser HR McMaster will provide clarity from an administration that they feel has neglected their plight as it concentrates on crises in Syria and North Korea.

On Wednesday, Mr Trump announced he was sending Mr McMaster to "find out how we can make progress alongside our Afghan partners and NATO allies." The timing of the visit has yet to be confirmed by US and Afghan officials.

Despite general declarations of support for the Western-backed government in Kabul, the Trump administration has given few concrete signals of its plans for Afghanistan, which remains heavily dependant on billions of dollars in American aid.

US forces also make up the bulk of NATO's training mission in Afghanistan, provide close air support to soldiers on the ground and form a separate counter-terrorism unit that targets ISIS, Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who like Mr McMaster is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, was forced to scrap a visit to the country in February because of bad weather.

The makes Mr McMaster's trip the first by a senior official from the new administration, although earlier this month he spent an hour on the phone to Afghan counterpart Mohammad Hanif Atmar for a detailed brief, according to one Western official.

That may signal renewed interest in Afghanistan, where nearly 9,000 American troops are deployed, but exactly what the Trump administration will decide is unclear, the official added.

The top US commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, told Congress in February that he needed a "few thousand" more troops to help train the Afghan security forces, which are battling Taliban terrorists and groups claiming allegiance to ISIS.

Afghan officials have held out hope that veterans like Mr McMaster and Mr Mattis would help form policies favoured by Kabul, including taking a harder line on Pakistan and the Taliban.

"Both these gentlemen know very well that Afghanistan's growing insecurity is because of Pakistan's ongoing support for the Taliban and other insurgent groups, and we are impatiently waiting for a clear policy announcement," said one senior Afghan government official.

Pakistan denies aiding or harbouring terrorist, and has accused Afghanistan in turn of allowing terrorists to cross from its territory into Pakistan to carry out attacks.

One signal that the United States may change its policies toward Pakistan is Mr McMaster's decision to hire Lisa Curtis, a researcher with the Heritage Foundation think-tank in Washington, to oversee South Asia affairs.

In February Ms Curtis co-authored an article calling for the United States to "levy heavy costs on Pakistan for policies that help perpetuate terrorism in the region."

Mr McMaster is expected to visit Pakistan and India as well during his trip, where the issue of violence in Afghanistan and terror groups in Pakistan will likely be discussed.

"If and when it takes place, I'm sure his discussions with our national security adviser and other meetings in India will cover prominently the situation in the region - most importantly in Afghanistan," said a spokesman for India's Ministry of External Affairs.

Pakistan's foreign ministry spokesman Mohammed Nafees Zakaria declined to confirm Mr McMaster's visit, saying on Thursday he was not aware of any plans.

(Additional reporting by Douglas Busvine in New Delhi, Writing by Josh Smith, Editing by Mike Collett-White)
© Thomson Reuters 2017

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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