Category Archives: Afghanistan

(BBG) Trump Struggles to Move Past Bannon With Afghanistan Plan

(BBG) Donald Trump returned to the Oval Office on Monday in danger of becoming increasingly isolated from the Republican establishment he needs to enact his agenda and the grassroots activists inspired by just-departed chief strategist Stephen Bannon.

The president will look to turn the page after a tumultuous working vacation capped by ousting the firebrand Bannon, who many in the White House blamed for the chaos and public infighting that has beset the administration. The move followed the departure of Trump’s first chief of staff, press secretary, and communications director in quick succession.

A week of stinging denouncements from corporate executives, lawmakers and even some conservative activists highlights the challenge Trump faces in rebounding from his roundly criticized response to an Aug. 12 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that ended with the death of a counter-protester in a car-ramming incident.

Starting on Monday, when Trump is scheduled to address the nation at 9:00 pm New York time about Afghanistan, the president’s moves will be watched for a sense of whether the presidency, seven months in, can rebound from perhaps its lowest point yet. Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis, who favors adding troops to a fight that has become America’s longest-running war, hinted Sunday that Trump may decide to do just that.

A campaign rally Tuesday in Phoenix, Arizona, less than 200 miles from the Mexican border, will provide a glimpse into whether Trump plans to pivot from the pugilistic approach that’s left him with a shrinking number of allies.

Moral Authority

“As we look to the future it’s going to be very difficult for this president to lead if, in fact, that moral authority remains compromised,’’ Senator Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, said Sunday on CBS’s “Face The Nation.’’

Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican and regular Trump critic, wrote on Facebook Friday that “I doubt that Donald Trump will be able to calm and comfort the nation’’ after the next national tragedy.

With members of his own party openly criticizing him for his insistence that “both sides’’ were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville, Trump’s choice of whether to lash out or reach out from this point could be pivotal. Saturday, on Twitter, he seemed for the first time to extend an olive branch to protesters who’ve denounced him.

Back in Washington, the recent firing of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, former head of the Republican National Committee, has helped widen a rift with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP lawmakers whom Trump has blamed for not achieving legislative wins on his behalf.

At the same time, Bannon’s exit risks alienating some of Trump’s grassroots supporters.

“The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over,” Bannon told the conservative Weekly Standard on Friday after his White House departure. “We will make something of this Trump presidency. But that presidency is over.”

Administration Infighting

The struggle between White House advisers calling for Trump to embrace the role of a more traditional president, and those who have pushed for him to be a force for disruption, has shifted after Bannon — firmly in the latter camp — was removed by Chief of Staff John Kelly.

A senior Republican aide on Capitol Hill said that while Kelly has brought more discipline to the West Wing, having an untethered Bannon outside the White House could cause more headaches for the party. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. A White House spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Officials pushing Trump in a more moderate direction, including National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, will remain in their roles despite public pressure after Trump’s Charlottesville comments equating neo-Nazis to those opposed to the far-right agenda.

Mnuchin Defends Trump

“The president in no way, shape or form, believes that neo-Nazi and other hate groups who endorse violence are equivalent to groups that demonstrate in peaceful and lawful ways,’’ Mnuchin, who is Jewish, said in a statement Saturday that outlined why he planned to continue in his role.

Cohn and Mnuchin will be key players in what’s shaping up as an epic September, with the White House and Congress needing to craft a spending plan and avoid a government shutdown by raising the debt ceiling, while at the same time trying to make progress on Trump’s tax overhaul.

Bannon, who clashed at times with Mnuchin and Cohn, has returned to the conservative website Breitbart, and is pledging to take on establishment Republicans and some of his former colleagues, which could seriously complicate those efforts.

“I’m leaving the White House and going to war for Trump against his opponents — on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America,’’ Bannon said in an interview with Bloomberg after his departure.

Since Bannon’s return to Breitbart, the website has published stories critical of Ivanka Trump — the president’s daughter and senior adviser — and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

The lead story on the website Monday morning had the headline “Source: McMaster Fails to Brief Trump Before ‘That’s Too Bad’ Error.” It referred to Trump’s seemingly flippant comment Sunday about a collision between the USS John S. McCain and a merchant vessel.

Afghanistan Strategy

Trump’s shift toward more traditional voices in his orbit could be heard Monday when he addresses the nation about Afghanistan. While its unclear what Trump will announce, the position favored by Bannon and others leery of once again ramping up America’s longest war appears to have been marginalized. At the time Bannon’s departure was announced, Trump was huddled with his national security team at Camp David to discuss the way forward in Afghanistan.

Mattis said Trump engaged in a “rigorous’’ process to come to a decision, and hinted that the decision could include sending more troops.

“I was not willing to make significant troop lifts until we made certain we knew what was the strategy,’’ Mattis told reporters on Sunday. “In that regard, the president has made a decision.’’

On Tuesday, Trump travels to Phoenix, Arizona, for a rally — events that tend to be freewheeling and fraught with drama. Trump has criticized both of the state’s Republican senators and has used the campaign-style events to attack opponents with little regard for political norms.

Toxic Relations

On Twitter last week, Trump called Arizona Senator Jeff Flake “toxic’’ and said he was glad to see former state Senator Kelli Ward preparing for a primary challenge in 2018.

Trump has also lashed out recently against Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — all at a time when a massive legislative agenda awaits in September, with no time to waste on Twitter wars and other distractions.

The senior Republican aide on Capitol Hill said that while Bannon created friction between Trump and congressional Republicans, his ouster might not change much in the relationship.

Former Representative Vin Weber, a Minnesota Republican who’s now a partner at Mercury Public Affairs, a government relations consulting firm, said last week’s drama will merely widen the gap between Trump and congressional Republicans.

“The party, it seems to me, is detaching itself from Trump,” he said before Bannon’s ouster. “They’ve got to forge their own way.’’

(BBG) Russia Opens New Front in Rivalry With U.S. With Taliban Support

(BBG) Russia and the U.S. are increasingly sparring over Afghanistan, adding to rapidly souring ties between the Kremlin and President Donald Trump’s administration.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has voiced alarm at Russia’s actions in Afghanistan, where it’s been cultivating links with the Taliban amid a campaign waged by the terrorist group against Afghan and NATO forces.

James Mattis in London on March 31.

Photographer: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

His comments come as local Afghan officials and a former Taliban commander say there is evidence Russia is supplying arms to the insurgents. U.S. officials won’t go that far in public, but U.S. Central Command chief General Joseph Votel has told a congressional panel that Russia was probably providing the group with weapons.

Moscow’s support for the Taliban risks adding another front to tensions with Washington after Trump last week ordered a missile strike on an airbase in Syria. The frictions are set to loom large over the meeting of Group of Seven foreign ministers in Italy, after which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is due to travel to Moscow.

It also highlights the task for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as he struggles to contain the Taliban amid a deteriorating security situation. The Taliban controls or contests over half the country’s populated areas, according to U.S. government estimates, making it harder for America to extract itself from its longest-ever war. Ghani has repeatedly called on the Taliban to join peace talks.

The Kremlin denies arming the group. Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov said in a March 30 interview the accusations were an invention by the Afghan government and its allies to “justify their own failure on the battlefield.”

Still, Russia, loath to allow another permanent U.S. base near its borders, says it supports the Taliban’s demand for foreign troops to withdraw from Afghanistan. And it has accused the U.S. of sabotaging its efforts to help end the conflict by staying away from an April 14 peace initiative in Moscow.

“Russia is actively building contacts to have levers of influence in case the situation enters a crisis phase,” said Petr Topychkanov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “That’s viewed very negatively in the U.S., which is the main sponsor in Afghanistan.”

Trump promised during his election campaign to mend ties with Vladimir Putin. But the relationship quickly deteriorated as the new administration vowed to keep sanctions on Russia imposed over the Ukraine conflict and criticized Moscow’s actions in Syria and Libya.

Chemical Weapons

Russia has denounced the U.S. air strikes on Syria, which the U.S. launched after blaming the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 people.

After its 1979 invasion turned into a 10 year war that helped speed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has for years branded the U.S. effort in the central Asian nation a failure. By offering support to its former enemy the Taliban, Russia is seeking to exploit the insurgency and displace American influence.

Officials in Moscow disclosed at the end of last year they’ve been in contact with the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 until being overthrown in the U.S.-led invasion. Russia says it now has common interests with the Taliban because the group is fighting Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of deadly attacks inside Russia.

Rocket Launchers, Cash

Inside Afghanistan, the Russian role is viewed with suspicion. Moscow “must help the Afghan army fight international terrorism instead of helping the Taliban,” said Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri. He could not confirm if Russia is providing aid to the insurgents.

The Taliban receives small arms, rocket launchers, cash and ammunition from Russia via Tajikistan, said Nasruddin Saeedi, district governor of Dasht-e Archi in northern Kunduz province, which shares a porous border with the former Soviet republic.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed denied Russia was giving military support, though he said the group did establish links with Russia about nine months ago.

“Our political office in Qatar held a few low-profile meetings, particularly with Russian ambassadors,” Mujahed said by phone. “The talks took place during international conferences in countries outside Russia.”

‘Many Channels’

Still, former Taliban commander Khan Mohammad Cherik, who recently joined the government’s peace process with 200 of his soldiers, said Russia was providing military and financial help. “Russian weapons were brought to us through many channels in the last one-to-two years,” he said by phone.

While there is no proof of weapons being provided, “we have seen Russian activity vis-à-vis the Taliban,’’ Mattis said at a briefing in London on March 31. “What they’re up to there in light of their other activities gives us concern.”

Around 13,000 U.S. and NATO troops are in Afghanistan and the top U.S. commander is pushing for several thousand more. The U.S. estimates that only 57 percent of Afghanistan is under government control, a 15 percent decrease since November 2015.

Russia, which until 2015 had offered support to U.S.-led forces fighting the Taliban by letting military equipment transit its territory, has “practically cut itself off from the coalition,” said Omar Nessar, head of the Moscow-based Center for Contemporary Afghan Studies.

Further challenging American leadership, Russia invited China, India, Pakistan and Iran, plus five ex-Soviet Central Asian states, the U.S. and Afghanistan to the April 14 meeting which it says can pave the way for talks between the Taliban and Afghan government. Moscow has said it is willing to host such a meeting.

The risk is Russia’s support of the Taliban “will backfire and help embolden extremist groups whose ultimate objective is to subjugate Afghanistan and then pose a risk to neighboring countries,’’ said Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to Canada and France. “Russia is misjudging the situation by bypassing Kabul and trying to sideline Washington.”