Soldiers on mission in Helmand Afghanistan mountains

By Mujib Mashal, New York Times–

Talks between the United States and Afghanistan wrapped up here on Sunday, as the Trump administration reviews its options in the 15-year American presence in Afghanistan in the face of a resurgent Taliban.

Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser, met with Afghan leaders, including President Ashraf Ghani, in talks that came days after the United States dropped a huge bomb on a honeycomb of Islamic State caves in eastern Afghanistan.

But the greater problem in Afghanistan is the strengthening of the Taliban. In an interview with the Afghan television channel ToloNews, General McMaster said, “What is necessary at this point is to consolidate gains and to deal with what is a big security problem now.” He did not comment on whether the United States would add more troops, saying it was for “President Trump to decide, really, what is the best course of action to begin to accelerate progress in the war.”

Afghan forces have struggled against a resurgent Taliban in the past couple of years, losing territory and suffering record casualties, while American strategy on the conflict is largely considered stagnant here. The insurgent group controls large parts of the countryside and threatens several cities. In a sign of the American military’s concern, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan has asked for thousands of more troops to be deployed in the country to advise and assist Afghan forces.

In the ToloNews interview, General McMaster said that Taliban fighters who refused the Afghan government’s call for peace “will have to be defeated on battlefields,” and that the United States was “committed to give the Afghan state, the Afghan security forces, the strength they need.”

He also appeared to take a tougher line on Pakistan, which has been accused of using the Taliban as a proxy force and giving its leaders sanctuary. Many analysts, as well as some coalition partners, have been critical of the United States’ uphill struggle to persuade Pakistan to crack down on the Afghan Taliban leadership, which has used Pakistan as a base for its battles in Afghanistan.

“As all of us have hoped for many, many years — we have hoped that Pakistani leaders will understand that it is in their interest to go after these groups less selectively than they have in the past,” General McMaster, who is heading next to Pakistan, said in the ToloNews interview. “The best way to pursue their interests in Afghanistan and elsewhere is through the use of diplomacy, and not through the use of proxies that engage in violence.”

Analysts have long questioned the American consideration of Pakistan as an ally, as the country’s military is accused of aiding Taliban efforts to derail American objectives.

“Many people in Afghanistan are wondering about the nature of relations between the United States and Pakistan, particularly the fact that everyone recognizes the principal role of Pakistan in supporting Taliban and other terrorist groups,” said Davood Moradian, the director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies.

Mr. Moradian said the new administration realized that the prior “appeasement policy” with Pakistan had not worked and needed to be reconsidered.

Afghan officials aware of the discussions with General McMaster said there was a common understanding of the threat of terrorist groups emerging from Pakistan. And there are other indications that the United States may be weighing a tougher stance on Pakistan, among them General McMaster’s reported pick of a point person on the country who has strongly advocated that the United States stop treating Pakistan as an ally and condition any future military aid on fighting terrorist groups.

The agenda of the two-day talks also included American troop levels, the developing of Afghan air capabilities and peace talks with the Taliban, Afghan officials said.