Afghan officials seek clues on Trump as adviser heads to Kabul

KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. 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.

White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster (C) and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon (L) attend a joint news conference between U.S. President Donald Trump and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Afghan officials hope National Security Adviser H.R. 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, Trump announced he was sending 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 U.S. 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.

U.S. 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 Islamic State, al Qaeda and other militant networks.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who like 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 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 U.S. 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 insurgents as well as militants claiming allegiance to Islamic State.

Afghan officials have held out hope that veterans like McMaster and Mattis would help form policies favored 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 harboring Islamist militants, and has accused Afghanistan in turn of allowing insurgents to cross from its territory into Pakistan to carry out attacks.

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

In February 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.”

McMaster is expected to visit Pakistan and India as well during his trip, where the issue of violence in Afghanistan and militant 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 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